They have a government, a national anthem, official borders, and an armed force. They are an ethnic group, sharing a culture, language and history that go back centuries. They are the Kurds, and they may be on the cusp of independence.
On September 25th, 2017, the Kurdish government will hold a simple yes/no binding referendum on Kurdish independence. But what would an independent Kurdistan look like economically, and how will this referendum impact the Iraqi fight against Daesh? As Kurdistan has been acknowledged as a semi-autonomous state by the Iraqi government since 1992, many industries, such as petroleum, chemicals, and metal refinement have been able to develop, which serve as the basis for the region’s economy. Furthermore, the Northern Iraqi offensive against Daesh culminated in the battle for Mosul, meaning the Iraqi government’s war against Daesh is slowing down, so an independent Kurdistan wouldn’t necessarily harm the war.
The Kurds are a people, an ethnic group. Although historians dispute who the predecessors to the Kurds were, there were Kurdish dynasties during the 10th and 12th centuries under Islamic rule. The shared language among the Kurds, Kurdish, is recognized as an actual language, not just a dialect. The Kurds hold territory South of Lake Van and Lake Urmia, which means they have defined borders. If one looks at Kurdistan and compares the region to a checklist of criteria for a country, Kurdistan meets the criteria. Defined borders, an ethnic group or people, a shared language, history and culture; these are all things that Kurdistan has that also make up a state. Furthermore, since the borders of the Middle East were drawn according to competing French and British interests and not according to the actual ethnic groups in the area (i.e. the Sykes-Picot agreement), the interests of the Kurds, along with those of other ethnic groups, were not taken into account. However, the Kurds are the only ethnic group in Iraq granted semi-autonomous status, meaning they are seen as a legitimate people. Kurdistan meets all the criteria for a state and the borders that were drawn in Iraq are artificial. Therefore, shouldn’t Kurdistan become its own state?
An argument against an independent Kurdistan is that the region could not support itself as an independent economy, as it is currently in an economic crisis. Low oil prices, coupled with being cut out of the Iraqi government’s budget, mean that the region posts a “monthly deficit of around $406 million per month” and cut the pay of government workers. However, if Kurdistan were to become independent, many of these woes could be alleviated. If Kurdistan were a sovereign state, it would have access to an “international aid fund” which could come to its aid, like Greece. In addition, Kurdistan, as a “sub-state entity” has “no track record in debt and is therefore not able to borrow its way out of this crisis”. While reforms have been implemented, Kurdistan is still struggling economically. But its economy is better well off than some sovereign states, as its GDP is only 117 out of 195. Many of Kurdistan’s economic problems would be solved, not made worse, by becoming an independent state.
Another argument made against an independent Kurdistan is one that is in favor of a united Iraq in the face of Daesh. But Iraq is already divided, religiously and ethnically, and forcing Kurdistan to stay will only serve to disgruntle those in Kurdistan who wish to have their own state, further alienating them from the rest of Iraq. In addition, with the fall of Mosul to Iraqi forces, the war against Daesh is slowing down, meaning there is less need for a united Iraq than there was three years ago.
Kurdistan is a region that meets many of the criteria for a state and whose economic problems could be solved with independence. Considering the upcoming referendum on Kurdish independence, understanding why (or why not) Kurdistan should be a state is of importance to the international community. An independent Kurdistan should be seen as a sign of progress, not regression, in the Middle East.