Bilal Wahab is the Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
This week, Kurds mark one of the darkest days in our recent history: the chemical weapons attack on the village of Halabja, launched by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein as retaliation for Kurdish resistance to his regime. It is the memory of such atrocities, committed against us again and again by the governments of the countries in which we live, that has made Kurds so eager to pursue the long-held dream of a state of our own.
Last year, this passionate longing for a Kurdish homeland backfired dramatically. In September, Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, emboldened by its success at building its own institutions and cultivating good relations with its neighbors, saw an opportunity to push for independence by holding a referendum. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurds who participated voted in favor.
This promising overture ended in disaster. The government in Baghdad, keen to prevent the effective secession of part of its territory, pushed back hard — with the blessing of Turkey and Iran and the tacit acquiescence of the United States. Assisted by a deal it made with a local Kurdish faction, Baghdad sent in troops who quickly seized control of half of the Kurdish region’s territory and oil export capacity. The central government squeezed the Kurdish government economically and blocked international flights to its airports. The lesson was brutal but clear: the Middle Eastern borders drawn more than a century ago by the French and British colonial powers are more resilient than Kurds would like. It is unfair, but Kurds must make peace with this harsh reality.
Yet there is a way forward. It is time for Kurdish leaders to chart an alternative path toward self-determination. They must adopt a pragmatic form of nationalism in which they prioritize, not jeopardize, the security, liberty and prosperity of their citizens. This may entail accepting something less than formal statehood. But good governance and genuine democracy should prove ample compensation.
Just a few years ago, the Kurdish region was a model for Iraq and the entire Middle East. The region’s open-door policy attracted businesses, journalists and academics. Iraqi Kurdistan is home to Iraq’s only American universities and two of its three cellphone companies. Until a few months ago, it exported more than half a million barrels of oil a day. The Kurdish military, the vaunted peshmerga, not only protected Kurdistan but also contributed to liberating Mosul from the Islamic State.
Yet this success contained the seeds of the defeat yet to come. As Iraqi Kurds became more confident in their ability to stand on their own, they grew less interested in maintaining their stake in the government in Baghdad, where they had long exercised considerable influence since the collapse of the Hussein regime in 2003. This disengagement was entirely understandable, given their frustration with the central government’s persistent failure to follow its constitutional obligations to the Kurdish region.
Now Iraqi Kurds must face reality by reasserting their role as important players in Baghdad. Iraqi Kurdish parties should field their strongest candidates to the Iraqi elections in May and fight tooth and nail for their constitutional rights. Majoritarian Shiite rule is a serious threat to Iraq’s political pluralism, but engagement, not escapism, should be the Kurdish answer. Iraqi democracy is flawed, but elections still matter greatly.
The Kurds should also seize the chance for some urgently needed housecleaning. Factionalism, crony capitalism and corruption remain the bane of the Kurdish region. Reform must be the Kurds’ new priority.
If independence is unattainable, however unfair that may be, then Kurds should focus on making their region a beacon for democracy and an economic success story (not least by making Kurdistan a haven for entrepreneurs from all over the country). This goal is just as noble as formal statehood — and it is entirely attainable.
Although Washington opposes Kurdistan’s independence, the United States is committed to a strong Kurdish region in a strong Iraq. Both Baghdad and the Kurdish government have too often seen these two ideas as mutually exclusive. The international community may be unwilling to support a Kurdish state, but it did welcome, and protect, an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region, an independent state in all but name.
To help such a Kurdistan serves Iraqi and U.S. interests as well. Baghdad cannot quash Kurdish aspirations by force — all Iraqi regimes have tried and failed already. It is in the interest of Baghdad — and of Ankara, Damascus and Tehran, for that matter — that Iraqi Kurds should expend their energy by governing and developing their region rather than by taking up arms. The United States can help by pushing the government in Baghdad to build and respect the institutions stipulated in the constitution, above all a fully realized federalism and the proportional sharing of oil revenue.
Once again we Kurds find ourselves citing the old adage that “we have no friends but the mountains.” Yet we should take this realization as a challenge to forge a just new society within the limits imposed by political reality. In a world devoid of justice, the century-old struggle of Kurdish nationalism needs a new vision.