There is no doubt that the Kurdish people, like any other ethnic and linguistic community of their size, have a legitimate claim to self-determination. The Kurdish people in all five countries where they have a sizable population and in the diaspora, are more than 35 million people. Were they able to form a nation of their own right after the end of the colonial era, their country would have been the third most populous country in the region. But the powers to be did not allow that to happen. Their claim to nationhood still stands as a legitimate one.
However, the timing of the referendum, the lack of preparation for it in terms of diplomatic support, and the special circumstances of the region all made this decision a very poor one. It may have been motivated by personal impulses than by the urgency to secure the rights of the Kurdish people.
Masoud Barzani, the main proponent of the referendum, is an echo from Saddam’s era. His term in office ended years ago yet he persists to hold power. The regional government has had serious economic challenges and without Turkey’s eagerness to buy energy directly from the regional government, bypassing the central Iraqi government, the Kurdish economy would have collapsed two years ago.
Since ISIS took over large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria in 2014, Kurdish fighters, with the help of anti-ISIS coalitions, pushed back ISIS only to claim the cleared territory as their own. This alone diminishes from the appeal of self-determination claim that the Kurds have asserted because it makes them appear as an aggressive expansionist regime that is willing to take advantage of the dire situation in Iraq and Syria.
The expansion, is bad public relation statement and shortsighted. Evidently, the newly acquired territories bring with it non-Kurdish populations, Arab, Turkmen, Persian, Armenian, etc. who will be made minorities dominated by a government that privileges and prioritizes Kurdish nationalism—creating new fault lines for protracted conflicts.
Kurdish political leaders ought to learn from the case of South Sudan. Prior to the division of Sudan, the conflict was made to appear as a conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian south, the Arab north and the African south. Since independence, the civil war in South Sudan became worse and the economic conditions of the landlocked territory became dire. Similarly, a landlocked Kurdistan in northern Iraq will make life for Kurds in the other four countries harder, and the potential civil war within Kurdistan in Iraq will increase. Turkey, by virtue of being home to the largest number of Kurds in the region will choke the Kurdish enclave and treat its own Kurdish population with even more hostility.
It is one thing to be supportive of disempowered communities and stand by any people who seek a life where they can live with dignity and respect. But Masoud Barzani used the Kurdish dream for self-determination to make a reckless decision that will, without doubt, make life for all Kurds harder and their fight for a better life even more costly. He failed to win the support of a single influential nation and made it harder for NGO’s and activists to continue their support of the Kurdish people. It is unfortunate that one man, whose term in office has run long ago, has risked the dream of so all, the Kurds, including those outside Iraq.