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Kurdish Self Determination: The Good and the Better | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A recent remark by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani that the issue of “self determination” remains on the table has come as a gift to those who have always claimed that partition is the best solution for Iraq. Over the past seven years we have seen dozens of seminars, mostly held in the United States, on how best to carve Iraq up. Meanwhile, books and articles on the subject amount to a sizeable library.

The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States encouraged the partitionists. Obama himself had no particular position because, as in other issues, he wanted to have as much wiggle room as possible. However, his vice president Joseph Biden, who had passionately argued in favour of the war in Iraq, had promoted partition for years before his new position forced him to either shut up or equivocate.

Inside Iraq, however, the idea has never been raised in the context of a public debate. The reason for this is that Arabs, who account for almost 80 per cent of Iraq’s population, have had no desire to raise it while the Kurds, during the reign of successive despots in Baghdad, did not dare even hint at it.

Now that Iraq is an open society there is no reason why the issue of Kurdish self-determination should not be raised.

Barzani is wise not to want to brush the issue under the carpet. After all, when the southern Sudanese are allowed self-determination and at a time that the Kosovars are buildng a state of their own, no Kurdish leader worth his salt could pretend that the issue does not exist.

But what does self-determination actually mean?

If one takes self-determination to mean the right to choose one’s government through free and fair elections, the Iraqi Kurds already enjoy that right. As head of the autonomous Kurdish government in Erbil, Barzani himself is a living testimony to this fact.

However, many of those who speak of self-determination mean something else: the right to break away from Iraq and form an independent state in the provinces where ethnic Kurds form a majority of the population.

And, who might benefit from such a development?

Before the Khomeinist revolution, the safe assumption was that Iran would not wish the Kurds of Iraq to have a state of their own.

The reason was that Tehran feared that such a development could attract its own Kurdish minority to secession.

Today, the picture is different. The Khomeinist regime, or at least the part of it that is still dominant, sees the world through a pan-Shi’ite prism. Its long-term strategy is to assume the leadership of united Shi’ite communities across existing frontiers and then use this as a platform for claiming the leadership of Islam as a whole in an as yet ill-defined “final confrontation” with the “Infidel” Western powers.

That strategy would benefit from the break-up of Iraq. For the past four years Tehran has been promoting the so-called ” federal” agenda for Iraq in the hope of creating a client republic in the eight central and southern provinces of Iraq where Shi’ites form a majority of the population.

The break up scenario would also make sure that a carved up Iraq would not be able to challenge Tehran’s ambitions for regional hegemony. A united Iraq with a population of 30 million plus huge potential wealth thanks to oil reserves and water resources would be in a good position to counter-balance Iran.

Moreover, Iraq is the second largest Shi’ite majority country after Iran. In time, Najaf could re-emerge as the main centre of Shi’ite scholarship and religious guidance, making it harder for the Khomeinists to pursue their pan-Sh’ite dreams. Even today, there is evidence that Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, who is based in Najaf, is emerging as the most popular Shi’ite marja’a or “source of emulation” in Iran.

Turkey’s position may have also changed. Until the liberation of Iraq, the popular view was that Turkey did not want an independent Kurdish state for fear that such a development might push its own ethnic Kurds towards secession. Between 1981 and 2003, Turkey also enjoyed the carte blanche issued by Saddam Hussein for military incursions in northern Iraq. That enabled the Turks to pursue Kurdish rebels deep inside Iraqi territory with the consent of the despot in Baghdad. As long as a despot was in power in Baghdad, a united Iraq suited Turkish interests. A democratic Iraq, however, is unlikely to tolerate foreign military incursions into its territory for long. It would be hard for Turkey to provoke a war situation with its only democratic neighbour in the Middle East without provoking adverse reaction from the international community.

Thus today, as neo-Ottomans in Turkey pursue dreams of empire, Ankara may be tilting towards a new position that favours the break up of Iraq. After all, the Ottoman Empire was made possible by the fact that the Arabs were divided into countless mini emirates or had no states of their own. A mini-Kurdish state in northern Iraq would have no choice but kowtow to Ankara even if that meant continued Turkish military incursion into its territory.

Syria may also favour the break-up of Iraq. Such a development would make Syria the most populous Arab state in the strategic region between Egypt and Iran and thus a more important player. A united and democratic Iraq, on the other hand, would be a daily challenge to a Syria dominated by a despotic elite in a client situation vis-a-vis the Khomeinist regime in Tehran.

Part of the Jordanian ruling elite would also be favourable to a beak-up of Iraq. A smaller Iraq would make tiny Jordan look bigger while old dynastic claims to ruelrship in Baghdad are revived.

One other regional player, Israel, has always been favoruable to the dismembering of Iraq. Many in Israel’s leadership believe that Iraq is the only Arab country large and, potentially, wealthy enough to pose an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. They argue that a smaller Iraq would be less likely to harbour dreams of leading the Arabs in a new major war against Israel.

But what if all partitionists are mistaken in their various calculations?

The first big losers could be Iraq’s own Kurds. They would not only have to bear the huge cost of building a new state but would also continue to pay for its maintenance and defense in a hostile region. Several studies show that a citizens of a mini Kurdish state in Iraq would end up much poorer than they are today. Landlocked and cut off from the bulk of Iraq’s huge oil wealth, the Kurds might find “self determination” not such a good deal after all. Even in Europe, the partitions that we have witnessed recently have often ended up to the detriment of the secessionists. The Slovaks are now 40 percent poorer than when they were part of a united Czechoslovakia. With the possible exception of Slovenia, all the seven states that have emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia are relatively poorer. There is no reason why Iraqi Kurds would do any better.

That would not be the only cause for concern. The areas that would presumably form the new mini state include a number of ethnic groups that do not regard themselves as Kurds. The new state would have to either suppress those minorities by force or accept their demand for the creation of micro-states in accordance with the most radical interpretations of the Treaty of Lausanne.

The regional powers that favour the partition of Iraq would also end up as losers. All those states include within their frontiers a wide variety of ethnic minorities, including Kurds, who might be interested in their own versions of “self determination”. History shows hat when the contours of one state are put in doubt the frontiers of all states within this region are open to change. Most of the states surrounding Iraq have treated it either as a nuisance or an actual threat. And in the case of some, Kuwait and Iran for example, they have not been wrong. However, new Iraq will not be what it was under the mad dictators of the period between 1958 and 2003.

In 1989, French President Francois Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were opposed to the re-emergence of a united Germany. Their fear was based on the memories of the Weimar Republic and the Nazi Reich. Today, united Germany is the principal guarantor of stability in Europe and the continents ultimate economic insurance. The lesson is that fears of the past should not block the hopes of the future.

Barzani should press his analysis to its logical conclusion and formally put the issue of “self determination” on the agenda for national debate. Unless one is wrong, a majority of Iraqi Kurds are attached to Iraq provided they are allowed to enjoy a wide measure of autonomy within a pluralist system. Since 1991 Iraqi Kurds have succeeded in developing an original system of autonomy that maintains their links with Iraq without putting their fate in the hands of those in power in Baghdad. Both Barzani and his ally-cum-rival Jalal Talabani deserve credit for an outcome that seems to satisfy a majority of Kurds in Iraq. As far as Iraqi Kurds are concerned, their current status is good enough, and there is no reason to upset it in the name of something better. Often, better could become an enemy of the good