The scarf says it all. It is draped over the shoulders of a pint-sized patriot dressed by his parents in traditional Kurdish garb on the occasion of the referendum for independence. The bright green cloth is stamped with one white and black word—Kurdistan—above a map emblazoned with the Kurdish flag. Except the map outline is not at all familiar, and definitely not an outline of today’s Iraqi Kurdistan. But there it is, “Kurdistan”, designated by a territory quite different in shape and much, much larger than its current boundaries in northern Iraq. And therein lies the problem.
Around 72 percent of some 5.5 million voting Iraqis turned out to have their say in the non-binding referendum for Kurdistan’s independence. Kurdistan’s leader, President Masoud Barzani, said the result would give the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) a mandate to begin negotiations with Iraq. But following last week’s vote, which resulted in a resounding 93 percent “Yes”, as expected, Kurdistan’s neighbors have swiftly scuttled any hopes of discussion, let alone secession.
At first glance, Iraqi Kurdistan is already independent. It has a world-recognized leader and its own parliament elected by its own people, it has its own army already proven on the battlefield against Islamic State to be a fierce and effective force, it controls its borders and airports, negotiates its own trade deals, has a strong cultural identity backed by a history in the region stretching back hundreds of years. So, really, what’s the big deal that they want to make it official?
The problem with Kurdistan’s bid for independence is best illustrated in that bright map on the green scarf. That map spells out what Kurdistan’s neighbors’ already guess: the aspiration not only to make Iraqi Kurdistan independent, but to expand that territory. They fear that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will galvanize the greater “Kurdistan Region” into seeking the same: a population of an estimated 30 million Kurds inhabiting land across Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. And to be fair, perhaps they’re not wrong; that is, after all, the region being waved on banners and worn on scarves by many Kurds.
“Today, we are finished with Iraq!” President Barzani declared to the tens of thousands of people who attended a pro-independence rally in Kurdistan’s capital city, Erbil, just a few days before last week’s referendum. A roar of approval went up from the crowd, and the cheers continued to regularly punctuate Barzani’s speech while he spoke of the future state as though it were already a reality. Yet barely had the Kurds returned from the polling booths last Monday when Iraq made sure to remind Kurdistan that they are not finished with Iraq at all.
True to their warnings, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran have begun to crack down however they can within lawful means to punish Kurdistan for holding the referendum. Iraq exercised its power as the recognized sovereign, placing a blockade on all international flights in and out of Kurdistan’s two airports, and all three countries have closed some of the shared border crossings.
Other various sanctions have been threatened, both economic and military, including enforcing the Kurdistan borders by force. Iraq has exercised this power with the full backing of Turkey, Syria, and Iran, which has already begun (the posturing tactic of) military exercises near the borders of Kurdistan.
Baghdad has achieved a few things with these intimidations: not all were intended. It has demonstrated who is the true sovereign power in Iraq. It has appeased its neighbors, who are taking this very seriously. And it has stoked the fire it wanted to suppress by reminding the Kurds that they live with a boot on their back and their apparent autonomy is subject to the whim of a government that would rather see them suffer than thrive.
Iraq also has the support of the international community, not least of all the United States and the United Kingdom, who have relied heavily on the Peshmerga, Kurdistan’s military forces, in the offensive against Islamic State.
These international powers argue that now is not the time for independence while the region is so unstable, and any (likely) conflict that ensues between the Kurds and its neighbors will weaken the battle against Islamic State. But can anyone remember the last calendar year that region was considered “stable”? Nor can the Kurds, so they are not going to wait until it stabilizes.
Standing in the middle of Erbil’s stadium that day as Barzani painted word pictures of a future sovereign Kurdish nation with the masses roaring and cheering amid giant unfurling Kurdish flags of green, red, and white dotted with a sun-like yellow splash in the centre, families out in force with their children and grandparents, one Kurdish man told me he felt like crying. And he wasn’t alone.
On the day of the referendum, the families showed up again. Men and women proudly brought their children along, despite the heat and long lines at the ballot boxes. Many were dressed as though for a wedding, in their best and brightest clothes available, some with flowers in their hair. Like the day in the stadium, it didn’t feel like a protest, anti-Iraq, or anti-anything, for that matter. It felt like a celebration, a joyful, hopeful, united moment.
“We have waited a hundred years for this,” says Hawkar Azez, a Kurdish journalist for local news after voting in his home town of Erbil. The same phrase is echoed by Unas Abdullah, voting with her four-year-old daughter in tow and newborn son tucked under one arm, and again by Ahmad Abbas, freshly 18 and studying sport science, and Deldaz Mohammad, who lifts up his 4-year-old daughter in her sequined green cardigan so she can place his vote paper in the ballot box.
Hadees Ahmad has lived through almost all those 100 years of waiting. Born at the end of the First World War, Hadees grew up right after the Kurds were sidelined by the 1916 British-French agreement that carved up the flailing Ottoman Empire into today’s borders (give or take some inches). She has witnessed an ongoing struggle on the part of the Kurds to defend against the systemic attempts to weaken them across all four nations.
Hadees struggles just to walk to the ballot box, sliding a slightly deformed right foot behind her metal-frame walker, assisted by her two daughters. Later she emerges, holding out her inked index finger. Unable to hear my question of whether—after everything she’s witnessed—she believes independence can be achieved, her daughters simply repeat the words “God willing” in earnest. “Inshallah, inshallah, inshallah, inshallah, inshallah!” They add, “We will be good neighbors.”
The campaign in Erbil for a “Yes” vote was so ubiquitous that it was hard to imagine anyone voting against it. Even some police cars were emblazoned with large ticks on the Yes box and the slogan: “Live free or Die with Dignity”.
But a quiet minority did say no.
Bryar Saeed, a 26-year-old civil engineer from one of Kurdistan’s major cities, Sulaymaniyah, seems uncomfortable answering how he voted, perhaps knowing he might be considered unpatriotic, or worse. He believes that many who voted Yes are not thinking about the consequences. Bryar says his father vowed to sacrifice his life for Kurdistan, as would most Kurds, but they are not seeing the referendum for the political game that it is.
“In the next parliamentary election, the KDP party [led by Barzani] will get the majority of votes [again]. This referendum is a very good thing to cover up the failures of the past two years. You can see this if you live in the reality of Kurdistan,” he says.
Bryar begins listing examples of government incompetence and corruption, underpinned by a lack of transparency.
“We are so disappointed by this government to be honest. But they have used this referendum to distract people because Kurds have wanted independence for a very long time.”
In Iraq, everything is possible
In Sulaymaniyah, Bryar’s home town, only some fifty percent of voters cast their ballot. He says many simply boycotted, believing their “No” vote wouldn’t matter in the face of the popular opinion.
Less than a week since Iraq’s flight blockade began, he has seen people, including relatives, preparing for the worst. They are stockpiling food, gas, and saving cash, fearing the rhetoric from Baghdad and others will escalate into violence.
“They are afraid of the Shia militia, of the Arab militia attacking us. It makes sense because they have been threatening us, also in unofficial ways,” he says. “In Iraq, everything is possible.”
Besides, the Kurds are familiar with targeted violence against them, only this time, completely surrounded by their hostile neighbors, he says some are more afraid than in the past because they have nowhere to go.
“People are afraid because this time we cannot flee to anywhere. Before we could flee to Iran when there was Saddam Hussein, but now where should we go? We cannot even go to Turkey. We can only go to the mountains and hide ourselves.”
Would Bryar have voted “Yes” if Kurdistan could have independence without punishment?
“Yes. Of course.”
Shunas Sherkody also voted no. He is a member of the Goran movement, a political party that campaigned its opposition to the referendum, arguing it was being used as a ruse to hide the government’s transgressions, and because there was no clear plan for after the vote. Sherkozay responds more bluntly to the question of whether, politics aside, he wanted Kurdistan’s independence or not:
“That’s like asking a prisoner in jail if he would like to be free.”
Contrary to what Bryar and Shunas believe, the serious repercussions of voting Yes are not lost on those who voted as such. Perhaps those in favor are just more optimistic, or more tired of feeling trapped. To the Yes voters, when asked whether they are afraid of consequences, the resounding response was an acknowledgment of hard days are ahead, but they are voting nonetheless.
“We think that it’s going to be a very hard job because we know that everybody is against us. Just look at our neighbors, even the international community—no one even supports the referendum. But we will do it,” says Laween Mohammad, who grew up in a Kurdish town in Syria. “We will suffer, we know. We will face hard days. We will face very difficult days, but we will do it. For sure. If the international community do not help us, we will fight for years and years, but it will happen.”
Music was pounding through the main square of Erbil on the evening of the referendum, dancing and fireworks continued through the night while cars of young men convoyed throughout the city with whoops and toots, waving flags. With the celebrations and generally everyone making as much noise as possible, you’d be forgiven for thinking Kurdistan had just achieved independence instead of simply ticking a box in favor of it. It’s still early, but it’s hard to believe this momentum will be broken, even by the sanctions being threatened.