Kurdish Independence Referendum Key Moment in Modern Eurasian History

 

Image from Al Jazerra

 

What can bring together the governments of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and the United States?

Voting stations set up for the referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq have closed their doors and counting of ballots has begun, according to the official supervising body.

Voting closed at 6pm local time (16:00 GMT) on Monday, and the final results were expected to be announced within 72 hours.

Erbil-based Rudaw TV, citing the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, said 78 percent of the more than five million eligible voters turned out to vote.

In Kirkuk, authorities declared a curfew an hour and a half before polls closed as jubilant Kurds started to celebrate.

Yup. After 13 years of virtual autonomy, decades of Baathist repression, nearly 100 of being yoked into an imperial etching of a country, and centuries of repression, the Kurds of Iraq have taken a huge step toward having the first independent Kurdish state. That’s uh…not going over great in the rest of the region.

Needless to say, the government in Baghdad isn’t happy, but neither are their neighbors. Iran, Syria, and most of all Turkey have large Kurdish populations which could see this (non-binding) referendum as an incentive to start their own state.

Turkey has spent its entire post-WWI history defining being Turkish as being “not-Kurdish”, and has fought a long-running civil war to maintain that identity. Its intervention in Syria was more to prevent Kurdish power than to stop ISIS. Kurdish oppression has long been a key part of Asad rule in Syria, and Kurdish fighters (allied with the US) have been using the chaos to create autonomous zones, much like they did in Iraq.

So this is a hinge time, but it has been a long time coming. In the post-Ottoman scramble after WWI, England and France divvied up the Middle East, creating what seemed to be manageable states for the purpose of exploitation. The Kurds were left stateless, divided between these new countries and a newly Kemalist Turkey, fighting to consolidate power in the rump of empire.

It isn’t that there was no sympathy for the Kurds; it is just that, well, the whole thing was too damned difficult.  Better to have a few pliant countries than actually care about national ambition, no matter the noble mummerings of Versaille.

(Fun counterfactual history for HBO: imagine if both Kurdish representatives and Ho Chi Min were listened to at Versaille. You probably can’t, because history would be more boring).

To be fair, though, it isn’t like oppression was new to the Kurds. A regional minority, they had fought against Arabs and Persians and Turks and Russians and everyone else since forever, honing skills in their mountain fastness. There is a reason the US has cultivated them as allies: the peshmerga have a reputation as ferocious fighters, and unlike when we cultivate allies in other parts of the world, seem to have developed excellent democratic instincts.

Indeed, in many ways, the Kurdish indepenence movements are some of the last bastions of true radicalism in the world, which is why so many American leftists have gone to fight with them. They have a reputation of being egalitarian in terms of gender. We all love praising female peshmerga, with a frisson of excitement, but they are no less progressive in their politics.  If you want to hear a very weird but cool story, read how Abdullah Ocalan was influenced by the ecological radicalism of Murray Bookchin.

Indeed, the Kurds might be too liberal for the US, but that isn’t why America opposes the referendum. We support Kurdish independence in theory, but would like it to remain in theory until the right time, which is when the Middle East is stable, peaceful, and able to absorb a political shock, which is to say: never.

But never seems too long for people who have successfully set up a government and who are far more capable of governing themselves than the kelpto-theo-crats in Baghdad. The US, though, has no one to blame but itself. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the catastrophic jolt that set history back in motion after the colonial/post-colonial interregnum.

We’ve argued in this joint that the 100 years after WWI have been just a post-Ottoman shakedown, stilted and perverted by the the colonial period and the distortions of the post-colonial reactions, which took place in the context of the nation-state. But the invasion of Iraq broke apart that status quo, leading as it did to:

  • A split Iraq
  • Growing Persian strength (played out all around the region)
  • The rise of ISIS
  • Civil war in Syria (or at least, made worse by the factionalism unleashed in Iraq and the refugee crisis)
  • Kurdish autonomy and strength

All of these are essentially post-state, post-Sykes/Picot, post-Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchhill and Nasser and the Shah and Saddam. The war was the preciptiating factor int he great Near East dissolve, unleashing as it did forces which had been shifting around under the surface of a phony, ahistoric map.

To say we’re entering a new historic era is wrong. We’re just entering the next phase of an era that began as the Ottoman Empire fell and Europe rushed into the void. The Kurdish referendum won’t solve anything, and on the surface won’t change anything, but will set the tenor for the next step. The US can’t stop the forces that the invasion set loose. Nor, I think, should it try. More than one empire has been wrecked on the shoals of that sort of hubris.

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