Kurdish flags and posters reading "Yes to referendum" hang on the walls of the ancient citadel in downtown Erbil. Photo by Farzin Hassan/Rudaw
The perennial argument against the independence of the Kurdistan Region is that it will embolden and inspire neighbouring Kurdish regions to secede too from their central governments.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials are cognizant of these fears and have sought to reassure neighbouring states ahead of the planned September 25 referendum that that won’t be the case.
“When we talk about a referendum, we talk about Kurdistan in Iraq only,” clarified Falah Mustafa Bakir, the Kurdistan Region's foreign relations chief.
Safeen Dizayee, the chief of staff to the region's prime minister, also told the Turkish press earlier this year that after the KRG holds talks with Baghdad on an “amicable divorce” it will do the same “with our other neighbours so that they do not see this newborn entity as a threat to their security and stability. We are talking about the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan alone. We have no ambitions of a territory in Iran, Syria and Turkey.”
Nevertheless, the old argument still persists: Reuters recently, for example, assessed that the independence referendum will constitute “a move that will strain Iraq's frayed federal unity and annoy neighbors Syria, Turkey and Iran, who also have sizable Kurdish populations.”
While both Ankara and Tehran have voiced strong opposition to the referendum an independent Kurdistan Region could actually prove beneficial to them.
Nobody frames the Kurdistan Region's independence quest as a Kurdish acceptance of a rump state rather than some kind of a Greater Kurdistan encompassing Diyarbakir, Qamishli and Sanandaj, in addition to Erbil.
Therefore in the future either Ankara or Tehran could, with some plausibility, say to any separatist Kurds they face in the future that there is already a fully-fledged and recognized Kurdish state in the region.
Furthermore, separatist tendencies in the three other Kurdish regions in the Middle East are not as prevalent as in the past. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) advocates decentralization over outright independence, in adherence to the democratic confederalism political system Abdullah Ocalan has advocated in recent years. This proposed system takes issue with the very idea of a nation state since, in Ocalan's own words, “the foundation of a state does not increase the freedom of a people.”
The Syrian Kurds follow this very same system. Iran's Tasnim News interviewed Abdul Karim Saroukhan, the prime minister of Syria Kurdistan's largest canton Jazira, this month. He said the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party “have no plan to be separated from Syria.”
Additionally, while the region “has no relations with the central government of Syria since Damascus has refused to recognize them” they “do not plan to fight the government.”
In Iran itself the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and Iran-Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) don't necessarily seek independence for Iranian Kurdistan. Even at the height of the Iranian regimes suppression of their movement by Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s the KDPI advocated “Kurdish national rights within a democratic federal republic of Iran” over outright separatism. Given the fact PJAK is essentially the PKK's Iran offshoot they likely adhere to Ocalan's preference to democratic federalism, as the PYD does in Syria.
Furthermore, Iraqi Kurdish independence would unlikely result in a concerted effort from the Kurdistan Region in support of Kurdish separatist groups in neighbouring countries. The record aptly demonstrates they have favored negotiations to end conflicts. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has invariably stated that he would like to see the Turkish-PKK conflict ended through renewed peace negotiations and even offered his services to mediate them.
A Kurdish state that is conscious of its neighbours sensitivities on the Kurdish question would therefore be in the interest of these neighbours as well as for the pursuit of peace in these troubled regions.
The Kurdistan Region itself earnestly sought to make a federal Iraq succeed following the overthrow of the brutal Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. These efforts have failed. While incumbent Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is probably the best Iraqi leader Erbil will ever deal with in Baghdad he is in a weak position and it's unclear if he can even secure a second-term, given the powerful Iranian-backed elements in Iraq who want to bring his government down.
Abadi's predecessor Nouri al-Maliki even threatened the Kurdistan Region's autonomy when he was in power, by seeking to pull command and control over the Peshmerga away from Kurdish authorities and talking about invading. A figure close to, or controlled by, Maliki may become prime minister in the foreseeable future – which is one reason Erbil is now pushing full steam ahead in negotiating its independence on good terms and not miss a, possibly short-lived, historic opportunity for statehood. A state which has a clear potential to be a significant factor for stability in an otherwise chronically unstable region.