Kurdistan’s right to secede
Set the Kurds free
The case for a new state in northern Iraq
Feb 21st 2015 | From the print edition
THE Kurds, at least 25m-strong, are one of the world’s most numerous peoples without a state. Other small nations in their region have a home alongside the Arabs, the Persians and the Turks: the Jews created (or, in their book, recreated) Israel after the second world war; Armenia and Georgia re-emerged as independent as the Soviet Union fell apart.
The Kurds have twice come close to fulfilling their dream, once after the first world war and the Ottoman empire’s collapse, when they were promised a state by the treaty of Sèvres, and again after the second world war, when for ten brief months the Kurdish republic of Mahabad rose up in what is now north-western Iran. Today the Kurdish Region of Iraq, home to at least 6m people, is independent in all but name (see article). It is that benighted country’s only fully functioning part. Since 1991, when the West began to protect it from Saddam Hussein, it has thrived. In due course, it deserves its place in the community of independent nations.
The principle, promoted by America’s President Woodrow Wilson a century ago, is that nations should have the “unmolested opportunity of autonomous development”. A country should be able to gain independence if it can stand on its own feet, has democratic credentials and respects its own minorities. To qualify, Iraq’s Kurds should confirm (again) in a vote that they want their own homeland. As well as being economically and democratically viable, the new state must be militarily defensible and disavow any intention to create a Greater Kurdistan by biting chunks off Turkey, Iran and Syria. It needs its neighbours’ endorsement. And it must settle terms with Iraq’s government, including where to draw its boundary.
A sustainable economy is within the Kurds’ grasp. They are exporting increasing amounts of oil, and Iraq’s central government in Baghdad has at last agreed a formula that will let them keep the lion’s share of the profits. Soon they hope to produce 800,000 barrels a day, worth $17 billion a year at today’s prices.
Democracy is established, though still rough-edged. Iraqi Kurdistan has regular elections, a boisterous parliament, an array of political parties and a raucous media. Certainly its courts are weak, its leaders’ habits feudal, its journalists sometimes harassed and its human-rights record far from spotless. But it is more democratic than most of the region—and far safer than the rest of Iraq, even though the fanatics of Islamic State press against its long border. Suicide-bombings and atrocities of the sort committed by sectarian militias in Baghdad and elsewhere in Arab Iraq are mercifully rare.
The regional politics are trickier. Turkey and Iran have long been opposed to an independent Kurdistan carved out of Iraq, lest their own Kurds try to follow suit, if Iraqi Kurdistan becomes a magnet for neighbouring Kurdish rebel movements.
Yet even here there has been progress for the Kurdish cause. Syria, which is unlikely soon to recreate a centralised state, is hardly in a position to object to secession for Iraq’s Kurds. Iran has forged a pragmatic relationship with them. Relations between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, the most concerned of its neighbours, have warmed remarkably. For now, the Kurds of south-east Turkey, far more numerous than those in Iraq, seem genuinely to have forsaken their desire for a separate state, seeking autonomy instead. Moreover, most of Turkey’s Kurds, assimilated in Istanbul and elsewhere, do not want secession. Hence Turkey might accept an independent Kurdistan across its south-eastern border.
The longer-term prospects are also good. Other countries based on an ethnic group—Albania, for instance—have resisted the temptation to incorporate the territory of their brethren in neighbouring states. Landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan will need access to markets for its oil, making it all the more vital that it is on decent terms with its neighbours, especially Turkey. Western countries should make plain that an independent Kurdistan will get no help if it stirs up secessionist Kurds across its border.
As for Iraq’s Arabs, the longer they fail to govern their bit of the country the less right they have to stop the Kurds governing theirs. Secession sets a precedent in the Middle East. Even so, the Iraqi Kurds know they must work with the powers in Baghdad and go through a difficult negotiation over oil. Since the fall of Mosul (where Islamic State holds sway), Kurdistan has crept towards de facto independence, with its capital in Erbil. While Islamic State’s maniacs are howling at the gates of Baghdad, a divorce cannot take place. But in due course separation would give the Kurds international protection from any violent Iraqi Arab attempt to reassert control. The Kurds want a country of their own. They have earned it.
From the print edition: Leaders