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A Kurdish State

Viewpoints, September 2016
Prof. Ofra Bengio

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Kurdistan in Iraq (KRI) has never been so close to independence as it is now.

Its leaders, especially President Masoud Barzani, do not lose any opportunity to declare that independence is their goal and there is no going back. These declarations should not be taken lightly. A few years ago no Kurdish leader could have dared utter such statements so openly and so frequently. No doubt there is the will, but the big question is whether there is a way and what is it?

In a mere 25 years KRI managed to shake off the devastation that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had inflicted on it and have built an entity with all the trappings of statehood:  An independent parliament, government, army, oil industry, two airports which help connect KRI with the outside world as well as independent relations with other states, many of whom have missions in the capital Erbil which function as embassies in all but name.

KRI became attractive to the international community because it is much more stable, secure, moderate, secular and tolerant than the Arab part of Iraq. However, the key factor was the Kurdish performance on two critical occasions: During the 2003 Iraqi war they granted crucial support to the US which the Turkish government declined to do so; and they stood fast heroically against the Islamic State (ISIS) at a time when the Iraqi army collapsed within hours against an infinitely smaller force.

Kurdistan in Iraq (KRI) President Masoud Barzani (with binoculars) inspects Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the Kirkuk region; Credit: Attaakhi Daily Newspaper.

The Kurds’ big challenge now is translating these assets into international support for their independence project. The main obstacles are the neighboring countries, especially Iran which has vowed to oppose the move by any means possible.  Nor has the key player, the US changed its vacillating stance of using the Kurds as a proxy for fighting ISIS, while continuing to stick to the elusive idea of the integrity of the Iraqi state.

The strategy adopted by Barzani and his entourage is creating faits accomplis on the ground while creeping toward independence. One such course is the idea of holding a referendum on independence with the aim of legitimizing it both internally and externally. Indeed, there is no consensus about it among the Kurdish political elites.

“Should the Kurds go the extra mile and declare independence Israel might be one of the first states to recognize it”

The referendum is planned for the near future and the timing is crucial: before the big coordinated offensive to liberate Mosul from Islamic State. The pro-referendum party among the Kurds conceives that this might be the last window of opportunity because after ISIS is pushed out of Mosul the international community might not be inclined to support the idea of Kurdish independence. Quite unexpectedly, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi declared in late August his willingness to discuss with Erbil the idea of Kurdish referendum and even independence.

As for Israel, many of its leaders have already declared their sympathy with such a move. This stance is built on long-standing tacit relationship; affinity between two nations which have suffered a lack of legitimacy for a state of their own, and strategic considerations which perceive the Kurds as a buffer against jihadists and anti-Israeli forces in a chaotic region.

Should the Kurds go the extra mile and declare independence Israel might be one of the first states to recognize it.

Professor Ofra Bengio is the Head of Kurdish Study Program and Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. She is the author of “The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State”.