There is an expression that the mountains are the Kurds' only friends. Their recent referendum on independence, in which the Kurds overwhelmingly voted yes, seems to have pitted them against a world that has never done much for them. Israel has been the only country to support their independence. Elsewhere, the move has been met with concern and criticism.
Those closest to Kurdistan have been the most blatantly threatening. From the north, Turkey has sent tanks to the border. From the east, Iran has sent troops. To the south, Iraq's central government has mobilized its own forces and Shiite militias. It seems that the region is determined to maintain the borders created by colonial France and England after the First World War, which divided up the crumbling Ottoman Empire without regard to local population differences.
A stateless nation
Back then the Kurds came away empty handed, despite promises to the contrary. Self-governance is a cornerstone of international law; it is enshrined in the UN Charter. However, for the estimated 40 million Kurds – the largest group of people without a state to call its own – those are just empty words. It is no wonder that Kurds hold little regard for the territorial integrity of Iraq. They have been oppressed there for decades, often driven out and murdered by the thousands with chemical weapons.
It is a good time for the Kurds, historically speaking: They have won the world's praise for their front-line fight against the barbaric "Islamic State" – and have been outfitted with modern weapons to that end. Iraq's central government is weak. Turkey is divided following last year's failed coup and has become the target of Western ire. Syria's opinion with relation to the Kurds has little impact in the region these days. Their referendum is a reflection of their own strengths and desire for independence as much as it is the crisis in Iraq and chaos in the wider region.
Nonetheless, it is possible that Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has overplayed his hand. He pushed for the referendum largely for domestic reasons: To strengthen his own position and that of his party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Barzani rules like a dictator and has lacked democratic legitimacy for years, which has made him a controversial figure in Kurdistan. It is possible he underestimated his people's desire for independence as much as he has regional opposition.
Independence not guaranteed
To prevent the regional powder keg from exploding, all those involved should note that the referendum is not legally binding. The Kurdish regional government has said that the referendum result would not lead to automatic independence. Barzani could rebrand the vote as a mere opinion poll. In return, Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran should quickly tone down their rhetoric and pull back their forces. The more the referendum is understood as a non-binding survey, the better.
The truth is that the Kurdistan Region already has all the trappings of independence: The Kurds have their own administration, military, textbooks and control over their borders. For the moment, de-escalation may take precedence over true independence and the Kurds' right to self-determination. At some point, however, the Kurdish question will emerge again, whenever peace in Syria is seriously pursued. So long as that question remains unanswered, there can be no peace for the wider region.