On September 25, the Kurdistan region of Iraq (Southern Kurdistan) is set to hold a referendum on independence. Various regional and international powers have made clear their staunch objection to such a move, and Iraq’s Supreme Court has ruled for all preparations for the vote to be halted.
The Turkish, Iranian and Syrian states are alarmed that a process towards independence in their neighbouring country would have a contagious effect on their own Kurdish minorities, all having suffered varying degrees of oppression and discrimination from these authoritarian regimes.
The US and many European governments are also pressurising the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to cancel or indefinitely postpone the referendum. Their opposition officially centres on the risk of “destabilising the region” and on the need to “preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity”. They plead for unity with the central government in Baghdad in the fight against ISIS.
Yet these governments are directly responsible for having pushed Iraqi society to the verge of collapse, making the country a terrain to multiple military interferences, prolific terrorist activity and sectarian bloodshed. It was US and British imperialism that spearheaded the invasion of Iraq, whose effects on the stability of the region have been cataclysmic, and which set the stage for the emergence of the arch-reactionary organisation that is ISIS.
It is rather ironic that the only regional power which has welcomed the referendum is the right-wing Israeli regime. Parroting the Kurds’ right to their own state, Netanyahu’s government denies this very right to the Palestinian people. This sheer hypocrisy reflects an attempt by Israel to manipulate the aspirations of the Kurdish people for the sake of its deepening business, political and security ties with the KRG.
Strong popular support for independence
Socialists support the struggle of all oppressed nations for full equality and for their rights to self-determination, including the right to secede, i.e. to build independent states if they so wish. This clearly applies to the Kurds, the largest stateless nation in the world.
All the while, we believe that the democratic demand for self-determination has to be linked up with a consistent struggle against capitalism and imperialism, because no nation can be genuinely free unless it is free from economic exploitation and imperialist plunder.
Since the Kurds are spread over four states and face a variety of situations, their right to self-determination cannot be simplified into a “one size fits all” formula. The exercise of that right could include, if that is their democratic desire, full autonomous rights within the state they currently live in, the establishment of independent states, or of a common, unified state for all Kurds.
Among the Kurds living in Southern Kurdistan, there is incontestably strong support for an independent Kurdish state. Carrying the legacy of ruthless repression, forced Arabization and ethnic cleansing by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and other sufferings under previous Iraqi governments, the old generations of Kurds in northern Iraq do not identify with the Iraqi state.
Many younger Iraqi Kurds have been born and raised in what already is a quasi-autonomous region since 1991. After 2003, they have witnessed the brutal consequences of imperialist occupation, and seen the rest of Iraq undergo a process of violent fragmentation and heightened sectarianism.
Furthermore, the overthrow of Saddam’s regime saw the emergence of a Shia-dominated power axis in Baghdad which, despite a new constitutional legislation that formally recognises autonomous rights for the Kurds, has shown continued contempt towards them as well as displayed a sectarian attitude against Sunni Muslims – a religion shared by the majority of the Kurds living in northern Iraq.
For these reasons, most Kurds in Iraq do not have a sense of attachment to Iraqi state structures and contemplate independence as logical and necessary. This is confirmed by several opinion polls and reports that have been published over recent years, suggesting a strong likelihood of a victory for the Yes vote on September 25(*).
Mounting anger against the KRG’s ruling elites
The support for independence is not paralleled with a similar support for the brutal and corrupt rulers of Iraqi Kurdistan, a region politically and economically dominated by two major pro-capitalist parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani.
In fact, the opposite is true: growing sections of workers and youth are angry at the regime – as attested by the increasingly poor standing of Kurdish politicians and by frequent street protests in recent years.
After 2003, the international ruling class was singing the praise of the KRG, presenting the region as a model of economic development and a heaven of stability that stood in stark contrast to the chaos gripping southern and central Iraq. Compared to the rest of Iraq, the predominantly Kurdish provinces had benefited from generally better security conditions, higher living standards and rates of economic growth. But such a picture was only one side of the story.
A broad array of Iraqi Kurds never benefited from the decade of economic boom, which was above all a fertile era for corporate profits, facilitated by very low taxation rates for big business. The boom came to an abrupt end in 2014. The crash in oil prices, upon which the KRG almost totally depends, brought the region to near bankruptcy.
The corrupt power holders in the KRG and their business cronies unloaded the crisis on the shoulders of the working class via sweeping austerity measures and severe cuts on workers’ jobs and pays. At the same time, as the oil bonanza came to an end, the conflict escalated with the capitalist elite in Baghdad over the spoil of oil revenues.
In October 2015 and in February 2016, the population of Iraqi Kurdistan erupted in a series of anti-government protests. As it stands, thousands of civil servants and public employees, including Peshmerga soldiers, have not been paid for many months, years even, triggering regular strikes to demand wage payments. Prestige projects like luxury shopping malls and hotels lie empty, while people in some rural areas have been reported to be eating grass to survive.
Even before the recent economic bust, the revolutionary wave that shook Egypt and Tunisia in early 2011 inspired thousands of Kurdish youth in northern Iraq, who poured on the streets of the main cities against their government. These protests were violently snuffed out by security forces at the time. This episode demonstrated both the readiness of a layer of Kurds to challenge a regime they were growing unhappy with – and the readiness of the state to crack down on dissent in the most brutal manner.
State repression in Iraqi Kurdistan is widespread, as activists, trade unionists, human rights campaigners and critical journalists have been at the receiving end of violent methods of suppression, including arbitrary arrests and killings. The corruption of the ruling clans, relying on an entrenched patronage system, is also notorious and extensive. Even the US State Department was quoted as saying in a cable released by WikiLeaks: “The KDP consists of family clans operating very much like a mafia organization.”
No trust in Barzani, Talabani and their cliques
The current Barzani regime tries to ride the pro-independence wave in Southern Kurdistan, but has collaborated with the oppressors of the Kurds in other parts of Kurdistan. It is a long-standing lapdog of Western imperialist powers, whose legacy and repeated treacheries are at the heart of the decades-long oppression suffered by millions of Kurds across the Middle East.
It has had very close bonds with Erdoğan’s regime in Turkey, its main investor and trading partner, to which it has given the green light for repeated military incursions and bombing raids against the PKK strongholds in the mountains of northern Iraq, and with whom it has participated in the economic blockade imposed on the Kurds living in the north of Syria (Rojava, or Western Kurdistan).
With such a heavy record of corruption and betrayals, it is abundantly clear that the regime has not called this referendum with the democratic aspirations of the Kurdish people in mind. As far as democracy goes, Barzani’s own powers as the president of Iraqi Kurdistan have already expired for more than two years, when the regional parliament refused to extend the term of his mandate in August 2015 – following which he closed down the Parliament. More accurately, the calling of the referendum now suggests an effort to deflect attention away from the crisis facing the regime, and forestall its declining popularity.
For Barzani and his clique, the aspirations of the Kurdish majority is nothing more than a prop in their power play with Baghdad, and in their attempts to bolster their fading support base by redirecting the popular anger off themselves. The self-interest of the capitalist elite of Iraqi Kurdistan ensures that they are as ready to betray the aspirations for a Kurdish homeland as they are ready to pretend to defend them today.
Moreover, statements by senior Kurdish officials have repeatedly made clear that the referendum is non-binding, and that a majority vote in favour of independence does not automatically mean a direct separation from Iraq. The Kurdish ruling factions, via this referendum, are more interested in increasing their leverage in their ongoing confrontation with the central government, using the threat of independence to acquire maximum financial and territorial advantage in the case of a new settlement with the equally corrupt rulers in Baghdad. This is what is meant by Barzani’s declaration that a “yes” result would “kick-start serious discussions with Baghdad”.
While asserting a course of action defying US government’s policy as regards to the referendum, President Barzani is also unlikely to engage his regime on the road to a full-blown clash with Trump’s administration. US imperialism has been a strategic ally and military support to the KRG over the years, and many American corporations operate in that region.
Yet the regime is walking on a tightrope. Even if it does not go ahead, which remains a possibility, the referendum could set in motion a process that goes beyond its control. Many Kurds project on to the dream of independence something entirely different from what the Kurdish rulers of the KRG have in mind, and any wavering or about-turn on this road could eventually turn against the ruling lot.
What position socialists should take?
The CWI supports the right of the Kurdish masses to vote for their own, independent state. But it is equally important to highlight the irreconcilable antagonism that lies between their legitimate desires to break the bonds of a long-standing oppression, and the designs of the Kurdish capitalist ruling elites to use this referendum in order to fortify their own reactionary brand of nationalism over the masses, fetter the domestic development of the class struggle, and carve out more power and money for themselves.
However, the fact that the aspiration of the Kurds for a homeland is being utilised by Barzani’s reactionary regime for its own aims should not constitute an argument for socialists to stand on the way of such aspirations, which the calls for a boycott of the referendum, defended by some organisations on the left, in effect amount to.
Attempts by the federal government of Iraq to prevent the referendum to take place, and other threats vociferated by neighbouring countries, will be perceived by most Kurds as a direct attack on their basic right to decide their own future. Calls to boycott the polling stations in such a context will most likely fall on deaf ears.
If the left does not take a clear stand in support of independence, the widespread pro-independence sentiments of the Kurdish masses in northern Iraq are all the more likely to be funnelled and exploited by reactionary chauvinists of the Barzani and Talabani type.
Of course, the process towards genuine change cannot be “subcontracted” to one referendum, especially one that has been called by a rotten regime for self-serving purposes. But regardless of the Kurdish elite’s machinations, this referendum will be seen by many as once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain independence, or at the very least to send out a clear message that way; hence the left will be in a stronger position to develop the fight against Barzani’s regime, and to cut across the latter’s opportunistic appeal, if it does so from a pro-independence, but socialist, platform.
This means combining the most resolute struggle in favour of Kurdish national liberation with the most resolute struggle against the reactionary, capitalist and feudal wings of the Kurdish movement, politically represented by the KPD and the PUK. It also means to seek assistance from and unity with the only real international ally that the Kurdish masses can find, if it is to achieve real change: the movement of workers, peasants and oppressed people fighting against their own corrupt and repressive states across the region.
Under the current conditions, it would be unwise to deny that the referendum, regardless of its result, contains serious risks of inflaming ethnic and sectarian reactions. Some Iran-backed Shia paramilitary groups, which have been strengthened in their battle against ISIS in the last two years, have already made clear they are prepared to “go to war” with the Kurds if independence plans are realised.
The so-called “disputed areas” are a potentially explosive powder keg as well. These are areas outside the internationally recognised borders of the KRG that will be voting and that contain a patchwork of Sunni Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Christians and other ethnicities and religious sects. The oil-rich area of Kirkuk, in particular, the demographic makeup of which has been forcibly altered several times in past and recent history, is at the heart of all tensions. It could become the theatre for a violent conflict whipped up by capitalist politicians and sectarian militias on all sides. While thousands of Kurds are still craving for justice for the deportations and other crimes they suffered under Saddam, Arab residents and other minorities are themselves rightfully fearful of possible discriminatory retaliations such as forced displacements, in case a ‘Yes’ vote goes through.
Any forcible retention of any minorities within the bounds of a new Kurdish state entity should be vociferously rejected, along with any sectarian or ethnically-motivated attack. Interfaith and interethnic committees of local residents should organise self-defence against any such aggression. The democratic, cultural, language and religious rights of all communities need to be defended, starting with the right for everyone to freely decide where and in which state they want to live.
But eventually, conflicts over resources, houses and land can only be resolved if a radical transformation is operated in people’s conditions of life, away from a system in which a small group of rich corrupt bosses and landowners siphon mass wealth for themselves at the expense of the majority, and encourage ethnic and religious divisions among the poor to keep their power and privileges intact.
That is why Kurdish workers and poor, while fighting for their just national demands, should link up with their Iraqi brothers and sisters in a united movement against poverty, unemployment and exploitation, and for the overthrow of the corrupt and brutal ruling classes that exploit and oppress them on both sides. Based on the public ownership and planning of the oil industry and other major resources, the building of a democratic socialist Kurdistan, along with a socialist Iraq, both part of a voluntary federation of socialist states of the Middle East, would lay the groundwork for a peaceful and permanent solution to the national question.
(*) In a poll conducted in 2011 referred to in the book ‘The Kurds of Iraq’ by Mahir Aziz, to the question “How closely attached or loyal do you feel to Iraq as a whole?”, the combined answers of “not very close” and “not at all close” gathered over 82%. And to the question “Which of these statements come closest to your view?”, among four propositions, the one stating “Kurdistan should become independent, separate from Iraq” was chosen by 90% of the respondents. More recently, a poll carried out by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research in 2015 found that 82% of the Kurds want their region to be independent. A survey conducted in August 2016 by the Peace and Security Centre at the American University in the Kurdistan Region led to the same result.