After a century of statelessness, the historical Kurdistan independence referendum is just two months away. Yet, many sides warn Kurds they would be fueling instability or claim their time has not come.
Contrary to such threats, Kurdish independence would be a factor for stability in both Iraq and the greater Middle East for several reasons.
Firstly, the historical injustice against the Kurds by depriving them of their right to statehood and confining them to decades of repression as minority subjects is difficult to comprehend through the lens of a Turk, Arab, or Persian.
As long as the Kurds remain the largest nationality without a state, they will never settle.
Moreover, without correcting one of the great dilemmas of the Middle East, the region will always have a foundation for instability and restlessness, both now and in the future.
Clinging on to the myth that artificial borders of Iraq and the wider region are untouchable merely ignores the fact these arbitrary borders are the real source of contention and conflict in the Middle East today.
Iraq has struggled to build any sense of unity since its inception.
One of the pillars of instability in Iraq, after the great sectarian complexities, is a Kurdish population refusing to succumb to Arab rule or to become subordinates of Baghdad.
The Kurdish price for this defiance may be high, but the preservation of their identity was non-negotiable.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi recently stated, “We are now a united country.”
However, such statements from officials in Baghdad merely ignore the decades of repression against the Kurds and instability that resulted.
As long as Kurdistan is bound to the Iraqi borders, relations will always remain fractious, and scars of suffering under Arab rule will never heal.
In contrast, an independent Kurdish state can open a new chapter with Iraq.
According to the Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, postponing independence would lead to greater instability.
“We have proved that we are factors of stability,” President Barzani said. “What we are doing through a referendum is to prevent that upcoming instability.”
“We want to cut any possibility of bloodshed in the future,” the President added.
Kurdistan has enjoyed stability and newfound prominence, especially since 2003, but whether you call it the “other Iraq” or whatever else, it is still a formal part of Iraq.
The sectarian violence ensures Kurdistan can never truly escape the shadows of the crumbling state of Iraq.
According to Abadi, “It is in national, economic, trade, and security interests if the Kurds are part of Iraq.”
However, the Iraqi tag will always cast a noose over Kurdish economy, tourism, and security.
If there was a uniting factor between Sunnis and Shias, it was the ethnic card against the Kurds.
Focusing on rifts with the Kurds and actions such as cutting Kurdistan’s share of the budget was often a tactic by Baghdad to deflect deep-rooted issues and corruption in the country.
Ironically, an independent Kurdistan may be a uniting factor for the rest of Iraq, by acting as a stable broker and forcing Iraqis to reconcile differences without the Kurdish question hanging over Baghdad.
President Barzani believes an independent Kurdistan could have a much stronger relationship with Baghdad.
“Kurdistan can be a factor for security and stability, and that is best done through an understanding with Iraq,” he stated.
Meanwhile, Mala Bakhtiyar, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) executive body, addressing a recent meeting with Iranian officials in Tehran, said: “We frankly told them that we, as Kurds, live in uncertainty due to the current situation in Iraq, the post-Da’esh [Islamic State] fight, and the disputed territories. We, therefore, decided to hold the referendum to guarantee a path for our future.”
Regarding the wider region, a secular, pro-western and democratic new state home to an array of religions and ethnicities is just what the volatile region needs.
Rather than fermenting instability in Turkey, a Kurdish state can act as a vital buffer against sectarian jostling gripping the rest of Iraq and the region, and can only strengthen the already strong economic and security ties with Ankara.
According to former Iraqi Foreign Minister and a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Hoshyar Zebari, “Kurdistan is the only place from which they can ensure energy supplies,” while it can act as “a buffer between them and the expansionism of Shia militants.”
The United States has pumped trillions of dollars into achieving stability in Iraq since 2003.
Even after the costly and intensive fight against the Islamic State (IS), there remain doubts Baghdad has truly learned lessons.
How can Kurdish secession cause instability when Iraq is deeply embroiled in a battle against IS and self-inflicted crises since 2003?
Does the continuous obsession with a united Iraq benefit US and EU interests, or does a plural Kurdish state that can act as a bulwark against extremism and serve Western ideals in the region?
Much like there will never be a good time to declare independence in a chaotic region, the Kurds cannot be accused of creating unrest and instability when Iraq and the wider region has known nothing less.