A young Kurdish girl holds US Army rations in 1991. The tents of the Cukurca refugee camp on the Turkish side of the Iraqi border are in the background. Joel Robine | AFP
Western nations, namely the United States, have through public and official diplomacy stated they are against the timing of the Kurdistan Region’s self-determinative vote on independence that will be held on September 25.
A declaration of independence — if it ever comes — would of course force US decision makers to re-evaluate the one Iraq policy and the Strategic Framework Agreement, which has served as the backbone for diplomatic relations between Washington and Erbil via Baghdad for the past decade.
The West faced a similar choice after US President George H.W. Bush encouraged Kurds to rise up against the Baathist government in 1991 in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Bush then refused to arm the Kurds in the fight against Iraqi forces who were using aircraft to attack Kurds fleeing into the mountains by the millions.
"But I do not want one single soldier or airman shoved into a civil war in Iraq that's been going on for ages," he was quoted by The New York Times on April 13, 1991. "And I'm not going to have that."
Starving, freezing, and ill, thousands of Kurds died. Young Kurds under the age of 30 who now comprise about half of the population in the Region suffered malnutrition, if they survived. The Kurds were left to fend for themselves.
A study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) published in 1993 found that in the first two months of the 1991 crisis, children under the age of 2 “suffered significant” malnutrition. It added that “50 percent” of the children in its study at a camp in Zakho had generalized weight loss.
“The high rates of malnutrition and mortality related to diarrhea in infants and younger children of Kurdish refugees took place rapidly despite prompt relief efforts and a previously healthy population,” the study concluded.
The international community eventually responded by delivering emergency aid to refugees fleeing into neighboring Iran and Turkey. France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and other states established the no-fly zone thereafter, passing a United Nations Security Council resolution to justify their actions, ending the Baathists’ aerial bombardments.
Economic sanctions were leveled against Iraq and in 1995 US President Bill Clinton’s administration backed the UN’s Oil-for-Food Programme aiming to provide food, medicine, and humanitarian necessities to all Iraqis, including Kurds in their de facto autonomous region.
Despite the program that ended in 2003, Kurds, just as they do today, maintained that Baghdad was not providing its share of resources. A 2005 UN committee found that the Baathist regime pocketed $1.8 billion during the program and about half of the 4,500 companies paid kickbacks to the government of Iraq to win lucrative contracts.
Although Turkey’s promise to not shut down the border after the referendum has assuaged some, there have been reports of people in the Kurdistan Region hoarding flour in anticipation of food shortages.
2017 is not 1991. Because of the Internet and social media, it takes just seconds for the world to see Kurdish news. Kurds are better recognized and their diplomats and emissaries from the Kurdistan Regional Government are welcomed nearly daily to see their counterparts in capitals across the globe, readily discussing politics, business, and humanitarian relations.
Are Western leaders such as the Americans ready to risk a humanitarian repeat of 1991, if the Kurdistan Region declares independence?
Kurdistan's champion of statehood is willing to press outsiders on how truly supportive they are.
"We would prefer to die of starvation than to live under the oppression and occupation of others. If this decision is made by referendum and the reaction is to isolate us, let our people die,” Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani told Foreign Policy magazine in June.
“That will be a ‘glory’ for the world that they have killed our people by starvation just because those people wanted to express their destiny through democratic means."
While not all people in the Kurdistan Region share Barzani’s indomitable view and still see some benefit in ties to Baghdad, the reality is that the ‘Yes’ vote is likely to prevail. That outcome and its subsequent negotiations will provide Western nations the opportunity to re-evaluate policy mistakes of the past.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.