In Iraqi Kurdistan, hope tainted by disappointment over European response
ERBIL, Iraq — His index finger was raised skywards as if he were making tawhid, the declaration of faith that often accompanies a call for jihad. But here in Iraqi Kurdistan, the man’s gesture meant something else. His fingertip was coated in dark ink. He had cast his vote and was raising his hand proudly for all to see. It was a great inversion — a gesture not of war, but of democracy.
The man was one of approximately 3.3 million inhabitants in the region to vote in a referendum on Kurdish independence. The question at hand was contained in a single sentence: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?”
On September 25 — in what will be a historic day for the Kurdish peoples — that question was answered: Around 72 percent of voters turned out, and just over 92 percent voted in favor of independence.
* * *
On the morning of the vote, the region’s top politicians filed into a large reception room at the Rotana Hotel, most with families in tow, to cast their ballots. Among them was Falah Mustafa, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) department of foreign relations.
The voting booths were, in fact, little more than tall cardboard boxes spaced out across the patterned gray carpet. As with most buildings in Erbil, a portrait of Masoud Barzani — the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region — hung in the lobby. The cult of personality is strong in Kurdistan.
The real action took place elsewhere, at a small table draped in white cloth at the other end of the room. On it sat an inkwell and two boxes of tissues. The process was simple: a long line of voters approached the table, dipped their index finger in the ink, took their ballot paper to the booth to mark it and returned to drop their sealed vote into a large plastic box. All this took place in front of a thicket of cameras and microphones.
It has taken centuries to get to this point, and the Kurds were making a show of it. One man approached the ballot box and dropped his vote inside. “Goodbye, Iraq,” he said with a smile.
A young boy walks past voting booths as people cast their referendum vote at a voting station on September 25, 2017 in Kirkuk, Iraq | Chris McGrath/Getty Images
The referendum — which marked the culmination of a centuries-old call for independence — was controversial, to say the least.
Both the European Union and the United States want to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq. From Berlin to Washington, the predominant fear is that Kurdish independence could further destabilize a region already ablaze with violent conflict. Threats from Baghdad of air blockades and from Turkey of a trade ban point to the potential for escalating tensions in the region.
Before the vote, both the U.S. and the United Kingdom called for the referendum to be “postponed.” Germany warned against Erbil making a unilateral decision. “Redrawing the lines of the state is not the right way,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said ahead of the vote.
Politicians of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) pleaded for those who did not support their bid for independence to at least refrain from overt opposition.
Baghdad, meanwhile, denounced the referendum, as did neighboring Iran and Turkey. With the almost single exception of (rhetorical) support from Israel, the decision to hold the referendum isolated the Kurds utterly. Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani pressed ahead anyway.
The mood on the day of the vote was jubilant. Leaving Rotana, I traveled across Erbil, its cityscape of sandy beige and gray buildings submerged in a sea of green, white and red — the colors of the Kurdish flag.
But the Kurds were not entirely happy. They are pro-Western and take great care to publicize their cause and promote their image across European capitals. The tepid response emanating from Europe was a disappointment.
At a polling station set up in the Sabat School (most votes took place in schools and other public buildings), I spoke to Rehaz Azad, a station supervisor. He, too, was disappointed with the EU’s stance on Kurdish independence.
“The EU should accept and support our struggle for independence,” he said. “We suffered a lot — we were the only forces fighting ISIS [untrue but a common refrain across Kurdistan], and we welcomed millions of refugees from central and southern Iraq. We have shown what a good nation we are; the EU should welcome a country like us in the Middle East.”
* * *
Erbil is the home base of Barzani’s party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
Sulaymaniyah, southeast of Erbil, is the stronghold of the region’s other major political force — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, who ruled Iraq between 2005-2014 and is considered the second most powerful figure in Kurdish politics after Barzani.
The PUK’s headquarters sit in a large lime green building flanked by heavily armed guards on a busy street in Sulaymaniyah’s center. Its design reminded me of Soviet chic with a Middle Eastern twist.
I was there to meet Mala Bakhtiyar, who heads the executive body of the party’s political bureau. His office was filled with books. There were PUK and Kurdish flags on the wall, and bowls of sweets and a patterned, wooden box of tissues of the type seen from Tehran to Beirut on the coffee table.
Bakhtiyar, too, was keen to talk about Europe, and he was, initially, diplomatic. “[The EU] wants Iraq to be united, and it said nothing more, and it said it respectfully,” he said.
There are two main reasons why the EU doesn’t back Kurdish independence, he said — “oil and ISIS.”
“Oil is a powerful weapon to have, and Iraq has lots of it; ISIS is a threat to the EU — the war against it is finished in Kurdistan but not Iraq and Syria so they said we should wait [until that, too was completed].”
Europe owes a debt to the Kurds, he told me, recalling the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France that redrew the map of the Middle East. “They really, really betrayed the Kurds and Palestinians,” he said. “Sheikh Mahmud [Barzani, the Kurdish leader who led a series of revolts against the British mandate in Iraq] should have been made king of Kurdistan, but instead they split the Kurdish region.”
Iraqi Kurds sit in a cafe in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 26, 2017, the day after they voted in a historic independence referendum | Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images
In 1920, Britain, Italy and France promised the Kurds a referendum on independence in the Treaty of Sèvres but bowed under pressure from other Arab countries and Turkey. “Sèvres was then broken by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne in which [Turkish leader Kemal] Ataturk separated the four parts of Kurdistan,” Bakhtiyar reminded me.
But Bakhtiyar was also keen to look to the future. “We hope that after the vote they will now support us. The Europeans must choose between the democrats of Kurdistan of the dictatorship of Turkey.”
And he was clear on the benefits that an independent Kurdistan can offer the EU. “In Kurdistan we are building a democratic state — this will help the EU. What is better for Europe: For us to become a Pakistan or Afghanistan or a democratic state?”
He continued: “We have proved our Peshmerga army is great. We have proved our worth in fighting terror. We are also rich in natural resources that will be beneficial for the EU. Kurdistan is in a very favorable geopolitical position, bordering Iran, Turkey and Syria, and if it becomes democratic it may well influence its neighbors.”
The Kurdish region is largely secular, which would “benefit a region filled with religious and sectarian states,” he said. “We have a saying here: ‘Democracy for all, religion for individuals.’”
“The European powers supported dictators in the Middle East for 100 years,” he told me, a wry grin spreading across his face. “Maybe now its time for them to experiment with supporting democracy.”
David Patrikarakos is a contributing writer at POLITICO.