This Sept. 25, Iraqi Kurds will hold a long planned referendum in which, as in the 2005 vote, an overwhelming majority will express their desire to become an independent state. How the Kurdish, Iraqi central government, United States and regional leadership handle this foregone conclusion is critical to stability in the region.
For centuries, the Kurds have been on the losing side of historical decisions that have consistently denied them their right to determine their future. Since the Sykes-Piquot lines were drawn by the British and French colonial powers in 1916, the West has played power politics in the region. Kurds were consistently denied the right to decide their own future. As Iraq collapses, Kurds are moving irrevocably towards independence. The region and the United States must accept and manage this new reality.
U.S. policy is to maintain a united federal Iraq and the administration has expressed concern that the referendum will distract from the effort to defeat ISIS. Yet, starting in 1991, U.S. protection of the Kurds in northern Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s brutality has led to a de facto independent Kurdish state. And the failure of the Shia-led government in Baghdad to live up to its obligations to the Kurds, including providing basic security assistance, helping cope with 1.6 million people fleeing violence, or reversing its 2014 suspension of its central government’s budget allocation, has driven the Kurds to re-assert their aspiration for independence.
Kurdish Regional President Masoud Barzani understands the risks involved and the need to proceed with caution before declaring a de jure independent Kurdistan. He has repeatedly said he grasps the anxieties the referendum will cause in the region, but he also argues, rightly, that a democratic and stable Kurdistan is a linchpin to security in the region.
The Kurds are America’s best friends in the ongoing quagmire following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Syrian civil war that has raged since 2011. Kurdish Peshmerga forces helped drive ISIS from Iraqi Kurdistan and cooperated with the Iraqi armed forces in liberating the eastern part of Mosul from the horrors of ISIS occupation earlier this month. The U.S. needs security partners in Iraq. Washington can count on the Kurds.
The region should also begin to view the Iraqi Kurds in a positive light. There are 40 million Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. Iraqi Kurdistan promotes stability in these countries, and acts as a driver of democracy. The European Union and Russia have major interests in that stability too.
It is unclear how the Kurds will move forward the referendum on independence. One thing is clear: The referendum is a wake-up call for the Kurds and the international community to adjust to the new reality that Iraqi Kurdistan will no longer work through Baghdad. They all have work to do.
President Barzani must take several critical steps to improve the government. Certainly, no new state is ever fully ready for independence. Kurdistan’s democratic institutions must be strengthened. Kurdistan’s stalled economy, lack of access to international markets for its oil, and its challenges with cronyism, corruption and governance need to be addressed.
Efforts to finalize a new constitution remain stalled. Doing so must be prioritized, and it must embrace the highest international standards for individual human rights, as well as linguistic, religious, ethnic, women’s and national minority rights.
The fight against ISIS stalled Erbil’s economic recovery. But so has the lack of transparency and legal frameworks essential to growth. The Kurds must create a predictable environment and banking system for doing business through a legal system that governs commerce and property rights, as well as taxes and tariffs that are levied in a consistent and transparent way.
Corruption continues to undermine the rule of law. The Kurdish government must prosecute and punish corrupt public officials, and provide the civil service with clear anti-corruption guidelines and a code of conduct, especially on government contracting. Publishing data on oil revenues is an important way to enhance transparency.
To attract international assistance to cope with the humanitarian crisis, the Kurdish authorities must develop a comprehensive post-conflict recovery plan focusing on stabilization during the transition from relief to development. And the international community must fund it.
Baghdad’s central government must act too. Conflict around unresolved territories must be avoided, especially around oil-rich Kirkuk. In accordance with Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, Iraq should hold a separate referendum on the status of the Kirkuk and other disputed territories, with monitoring by the international community. And it must accept the outcome of both referendums.
The referendum on Iraqi Kurdish independence certainly will raise legitimate questions of the future of these Kurdish areas in neighboring countries. But none have the experience of self-government like the Iraqi Kurds. The Kurdistan Regional Government must affirm that it has no plan for a greater Kurdistan incorporating the Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iran.
The referendum provides an opportunity to spur Iraqi Kurds, Baghdad and the international community to recognize the contributions Kurds are making to stability in the region — and allow them to determine their own future. Done correctly, a democratic, prosperous and stable Iraqi Kurdistan — whether nominally part of Iraq or independent — will advance the interests of the Kurds, Iraq, the region and the broader international community.
• Ambassador Nancy Soderberg has served in the White House as Deputy National Security Adviser, as an Ambassador to the United Nations, and chair of the 2015 Task Force Report, “State-Building in Iraqi Kurdistan.” Currently, she is President and CEO of Soderberg Global Solutions and the Director of the Public Service Leadership Program at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida. Follow her @nancysoderberg.
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