On September 25th, the Kurds of Iraq indicated for the second time in 12 years that they wish to be free of the rest of the country. While the final results are not yet in, early indications are that it was an overwhelming victory for “yes.” That sentiment cannot come as a surprise. Feeling cheated out of a state of their own after the World War I, having fought central governments that suppressed their aspirations, and suffering grievously in the process, Kurds understandably see independence as the only viable escape from further such woe.
Yet for statehood to arise, a people’s right to self-determination and their desire to exercise it must be matched with possibility. On this score, the Kurds in Iraq, much less the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, still have a long journey ahead. A “yes” vote in the referendum will not deliver independence; it is designed merely to remind Iraqi leaders in Baghdad that it is the Kurds’ strong wish to split off from a country from which they have always felt alien—to put an end to a forced marriage that was loveless and abusive from the get-go.
Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdish region, must have been keenly aware of the limits on Kurdish aspirations. He repeatedly called for staging a referendum in the past, but did not press the matter. This time he went all the way, extending the prospect of a strengthened hand in independence negotiations with Baghdad as a lure to Kurdish voters. He signally, and wisely, refrained from promising them that independence would be around the corner. The reason why he went ahead this time may lie in his concern that if and when the Islamic State is defeated, U.S. and European military support may dry up, along with the diplomatic leverage that comes with it. In other words, Barzani may believe that the window for Western backing of his independence bid may be closing soon.