After World War I, the Kurds came tantalizingly close to getting an independent state. Nearly a century later, they are no closer to an independent homeland.
There are many reasons for this: regional instability; suppression of the Kurds, most dramatically in Turkey and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; vehement opposition to a Kurdish state; infighting among Kurds; and, despite some prominent Western supporters, no viable advocate for Kurdish statehood. These reasons were on display this week as Iraqi forces took control of Kirkuk, the disputed oil-rich city that Kurds see as their Jerusalem. Kurdish fighters had controlled the city since 2014, when Iraqi forces fled the area in the face of an ISIS onslaught. What made the situation even more precarious was last month’s referendum, in which an overwhelming number of Kurds voted for an independent homeland in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. The referendum was also conducted in three areas with significant Kurdish populations, including Kirkuk, that are deemed disputed areas by the 2005 Iraqi constitution. That document was approved in most of Iraq by wide margins, but in Iraqi Kurdistan more than 98 percent of voters endorsed it.
The aftermath of this vote and the seizure of Kirkuk is playing out in a predictable fashion—finger-pointing among the Kurds, an attempt at neutrality by the United States, decisive action by Iran, and a flexing of muscles by the Iraqi state—but it also raises two questions: Why wasn’t the U.S. able to persuade one of its most reliable allies in the region to postpone the referendum? And why doesn’t Washington support Kurdish independence outright?