Most Americans alive today have no memory of our country ever changing its borders. And the last time it happened, many Americans alive at the time had no memory of the country adding previous states, either. The 47th state (Arizona) was admitted to the Union in 1912. Hawai’i and Alaska joined in 1959. Since then, we’ve now gone 57 years without the United States of America changing its outline on the world map. “This sort of history happens to other people in the world, not us,” we tell ourselves. I was thinking of this while watching the muted attention given to Puerto Rico after it got hammered by Hurricane Maria this weekend. But that’s a really subject for another column. What made me think about our historic cartological stability again today was the vote for independence being conducted in the parts of Iraq under Kurdish control.
The Kurds are voting either for or against becoming their own country. As of this writing, the results of the vote are not known, but most predict an overwhelming majority will indeed vote for independence.
Before examining the Kurdish situation, though, a larger question must be asked. Should ethnic peoples have the right to vote their own independence from the countries which currently claim what they consider their land? This sort of divorce may become increasingly popular if deemed legitimate by the world, so it is a question with all sorts of overtones. Most see Britain as within its rights to have voted for Brexit. But if Scotland had voted to leave the United Kingdom, would London have allowed it to peacefully exit? Brexit has shaken the United Kingdom to its core, and now even Northern Ireland might consider leaving if Brexit goes badly (they could either become independent themselves, or join with the Republic of Ireland to reunify the entire island under one government). Should the Basque population also be able to divorce themselves from Spain and France? Catalonia is also considering the idea. So the issue of self-determination of independence may have consequences to Western Europe in the very near future.
But then there’s the recent past to consider, as well. Was the vote in the Crimea valid? Even if it had been a pristine and valid election (which, by most accounts, it wasn’t), should it have been allowed to happen, and should the results have been condoned and supported by the rest of the world? Of course, voting to join another country is a bit different than voting for outright independence, and Russia’s hands were certainly all over that election. Some compared it to the annexation of Austria by Adolf Hitler in the anschluss period (which few outside Germany considered legitimate). This is why questions of sovereign self-determination aren’t quite as cut and dried as they first appear.
But back to the Kurds. The Kurds have lived in the region since Roman times, but were denied their own country at the end of World War I, when the Middle East was divided up as spoils by the major powers after the war’s end (and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire). Instead, the areas where Kurdish is spoken were separated by the new lines on the map, partially ending up in modern-day Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Hopes for creating a “Greater Kurdistan” have long existed, which would put these puzzle pieces back together in order to form a new Kurdish country.
The biggest problem to achieving this goal is that the division of the Kurds into four other countries has meant that the rest of the world sees the Kurds differently depending on where they happen to be. The political divisions imposed on them after World War I worked, in this regard, as intended. If all of the traditional Kurdish areas had become a portion of just one modern country, gaining independence now would be a lot easier task, in other words.
The United States is a good example of how these divisions have fractured foreign policy towards the Kurds. At the present moment, Turkey is an important NATO ally who considers the Kurdish independence guerrilla fighters in Turkey (the P.K.K.) to be “terrorists.” The United States, the European Union, and NATO all agree with this official designation. Closely aligned with the P.K.K. is the P.J.A.K. in Iran, with whom the United States has had an ambivalent relationship. At times, we have supported them quietly (because of the old “enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, as applied towards Tehran), but one of Barack Obama’s first acts as president was to officially declare them a terrorist organization.
However, the Kurdish Peshmurga fighters have been the most effective force against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, from the initial Islamic State blitzkrieg land-grab right up to the present. When the Iraqi army fled the Islamic State’s advance, the Kurds halted them from taking any Kurdish territory. The tides of the war really began turning when the Kurds retook the major route through Sinjar, in northern Iraq. The United States has supported the Kurdish fighters in both Iraq and Syria to varying degrees over the years ― which has usually fallen far short of adequately arming them for the battle. But now American air power is providing bombing support for the Kurds fighting in Syria, allowing them to quickly wrest territory from Islamic State control (notably, in their self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa, which is now almost fully under Kurdish control).
In fact, in Syria the Kurds have actually gained significant ground from their traditional areas. They were largely responsible for clearing the Turkish-Syrian border of Islamic State fighters, and have pushed far further south than they’ve ever laid claim to previously. This includes some rather large oil fields, it is worth mentioning. Turkey is not exactly pleased with this situation. Neither are the Russians and the Syrian forces. Since the Islamic State is on the verge of utter defeat in Syria, this friction might become open warfare very soon in the vacuum the Islamic State’s demise will create. Especially around those oil fields.
In Iraq, the Kurds have also gained control of disputed territory, notably the city (and oil fields) of Kirkuk. This is complicating their efforts to proclaim independence.
Even holding such a vote has been incredibly contentious. The central Iraqi government declared it illegal, and they were backed up by the highest Iraqi court, but they were largely unable to stop the vote from taking place. Military maneuvers are taking place on many borders of Iraqi Kurdistan, as Iran and Turkey seek to send a message not to act too hastily. Within the Kurdish area in Iraq, the vote itself is enmeshed in Kurdish politics surrounding the current Kurdish leader. The inclusion of Kirkuk in the voting was also seen as overly ambitious.
The United States has cautioned against the Kurds even holding their vote. We have thrown our lot in with the central Baghdad government (at least for now), in order to keep the country intact. This should come as no surprise, since we’ve never backed an independent Kurdistan ― we prefer to use the Kurdish fighting abilities when their goals match with ours, and then (to one degree or another) to leave the Kurds to their own political fate afterwards. For us, it’s always been an alliance of convenience, for the most part. We’ll help the Kurds, but only up to a point and no further. Kurdish independence has always been beyond that point for the U.S.
The Iraqi Kurdish vote will be about as non-binding as it gets. It is merely a referendum to test the appeal of the idea of declaring independence, rather than an unequivocal issuance of such a declaration to the world. It is seen even by the Kurds as a preliminary step down a path of negotiation with Baghdad which could eventually lead to their complete political independence. The subject of borders will be a major part of such discussions, of course.
If the goal of declaring Kurdish independence from Iraq is ever completely achieved ― whether through diplomacy or through another phase of the war ― it will have major repercussions across the region. Iran and Turkey may ramp up military actions against their own Kurdish areas, to pre-empt them from leaving. Kurds in Syria may decide to follow the Iraqi example and join the territory they hold with the new Kurdistan state. This would, obviously, change the whole face of the Syrian civil war in a major way.
Consequences aside, though, the basic questions remain, for the rest of the world to grapple with. When should an election to declare independence (or otherwise redraw the world map’s lines) be considered valid? When should it even be allowed to happen? What has to happen to certify such an election’s validity to the satisfaction of the rest of the world? What groups will this option be open to? How big a population or geographic area should be necessary for such a vote to have any validity? It’s easy to spout idealistic platitudes about how everyone should have the right to self-determination, but should this be the case every time, for everyone?
This issue isn’t just going to be limited to war-torn areas far away, either. Precedents, once set in international law, are then used by others with similar goals. What will happen in Spain when the Basque region or Catalonia holds a similar vote? The United States fought our own Civil War over the issue of separation, but that was a long time ago. We settled the question once and for all, over 150 years ago ― for ourselves. But the Kurdish vote is going to force both us and the rest of the world to consider both the legality and the desirability of such votes elsewhere in the future, by ethnic or political groups in other countries ― even when the central government is opposed to such a divorce. It’s hard not to sympathize with the Kurdish dream of autonomy, but will we just continue to weigh each instance on a case-by-case basis? The answers to all of these questions are going to have a wider impact than just in Iraq; much wider in fact than even in the Greater Kurdistan area or the entire Middle East. So they’re questions worth thinking about, while listening to the news of the Kurdish election results.
Chris Weigant blogs at ChrisWeigant.com
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant