There are signs all over the world that the national question is still unsettled. The spectacle of police trying to block the Catalan referendum has clarified this much in Spain. But it’s far from the only example. In northern Iraq, the Kurdish people have voted for independence.

Much like Catalonia, the Iraqi Kurds held their referendum despite the opposition of the central authorities. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani organised the referendum to position himself for negotiations with the Iraqi government. It was also a convenient pretext to avoid holding an election. But, even with regard to self-determination, the vote is not just about the future of the Kurdish provinces. The major dispute is over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other non-Kurdish areas occupied by the Peshmerga.

Unsurprisingly, the Iraqi government has vehemently opposed the referendum and deemed it “unconstitutional”. The regimes of Turkey and Iran are just as vehemently opposed to Kurdish independence. Facing the repercussions of Barzani’s gambit, the Kurdish people of Iraq went to the polls on September 25th. The result: 93% voted in favour of secession.

Iraq, Turkey and Iran have all responded with threats and travel restrictions. Troops have been mobilised on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan, though the role played by Iran’s Shi’ite militias in Iraq will be crucial in the weeks ahead. The Iraqi army has its hands full already and likely cannot afford to wage a two-front war. It could be disastrous to divide the front against ISIS at this stage.

The Kurdish armed forces played a crucial role in driving Islamic State out of areas of northern Iraq, but they then occupied those territories and effectively increased the size of Iraqi Kurdistan by 40%. The question of where the border will be drawn in a partition is vital. If the border is drawn badly, the consequences could follow the Kurds and the Iraqis for decades to come.

That being said, the right to self-determination is a fundamental part of any political process. The Kurds have long been denied their national rights. What exactly lies behind the push for independence is worth dissecting. Massoud Barzani is a deeply mercurial figure and his government should be treated with few illusions. The strategy he has taken involves a great deal of risk.

Playing for Keeps

It’s not the first time that the Iraqi Kurdish leader has gambled on his people’s future. A dozen years ago, the Kurdish government held an unofficial referendum as part of increasing its bargaining position. At the time the US was breaking up Iraqi institutions and building a new federal model and writing a new constitution. This was just as the US was throwing open the country to international capital.

Although the US occupation depended on the Peshmerga for support, the Americans never wanted to see Iraq broken up into ethnic cantons or new statelets. Autonomy for the Kurds was a compromise to maintain the contiguity of the Iraqi nation-state. This was long before American policymakers began to fantasise of carving out a Sunni state, a Shi’ite state and a Kurdish state, from the body of Iraq.

Ultimately, Iraqi Kurdistan got a regional government, complete with the full trappings of a president and a parliament, while Talabani would become Iraq’s first elected president and Barzani would come to hold the balance of power in Kurdistan. The presidential role given to Talabani was mostly symbolic, but it would allow Talabani to play the role of mediator in Iraq’s tensions. He is now remembered as a unifier. His years as an enemy of the Iraqi state are long forgotten.

However, the US occupation guaranteed the new settlement would collapse into sectarian warfare. The Sunni minority was displaced with the ascendancy of the Shi’a to dominance in the new government, the country saw new patronage networks emerge around the state and the military. The Kurdish government just became the representative of a competing set of patronage networks.

The competition between these networks have torn apart the weak fabric of the post-Saddam institutions. This is why the army was incapable of defending Mosul from ISIS. Though the Iraqi military had a vast number of soldiers on paper, the numbers only existed on paper as many of these people were ghost soldiers. The army was just another means of securing money and distributing it.

Meanwhile Massoud Barzani had been busy. The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) had been eager to forge new supply chains to expand trade with Turkey, particularly in oil. This was the economic strategy to achieve greater autonomy from Baghdad. But this realpolitik would put the Kurdish government on a collision course with the Kurdish nationalists in Turkey and Syria.

The material basis of this conflict was the energy resources that the Iraqi Kurdish government had at its disposal. Another aspect was ideological, the KDP had adopted a conservative nationalist agenda and the Barzani leadership envisioned the future of Kurdistan looking more like Dubai than a modern socialist state. The KDP remained wedded to the idea of independence because it would lay the foundations of building a capitalist country.

By contrast, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) had both moved away from the aim of building a new state out of existing countries. Instead, the Turkish PKK and the Syrian PYD embraced democratic confederalism as part of a shift from Marxism-Leninism towards anarchism. This amounted to establishing the framework for an economy based on cooperatives and communes, as well as a new politics based on municipal democracy and gender equality. The new brand of nationalism would be civic, not ethnic.

The other layer to this picture is in questions of power. President Barzani is past his term limit and the Kurds have not had the chance to elect a new president for a while. In this regard, the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is not just about national rights. It offers a distraction for the entrenchment of power around the Barzani family and their allies. This would mean trouble down the road for an independent Kurdish state.

No Risk, No Reward

Looking at the history of the Kurds, it is easy to see why the Kurdish people would want a state. The British promised the Kurds their own state in exchange for fighting against the Ottoman Empire, only to renege on this pledge once the First World War was over. Instead, the Kurds saw their territory carved up between French Syria and British Iraq on the one hand, and Turkey and Iran on the other.

Long before the gassing of Halabja, Winston Churchill advocated the use of poison gas against the Kurds in northern Iraq. This was while the British army was facing a rebellion from the Kurds just after the formation of Iraq. The Kurdish question goes to the heart of the Iraqi nation. It may be the case that the nation-state was never viable precisely because of the way the Kurds were trapped in the borders of an Arab-dominated country.

It is certainly why Iraq has experienced a slew of revolts from the Kurds since the country was formed. The Barzani family goes back a long way back in this history of treachery and struggle. Indeed, the president’s father Mustafa Barzani tried to play the world powers and cost himself and his party a great deal of credibility.

The KDP was supported by the United States, Israel and Iran from 1967 to 1975. The relationship came to an end because the Shah of Iran cut a deal with Saddam Hussein to end the tensions over the Shatt al-Arab. The US withdrew its support for the Kurds as it no longer had the need for a non-Arab proxy force in Iraq. This effectively left the Kurds to Saddam’s mercy.

At this point, Jalal Talabani and his allies broke with the KDP to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Mustafa Barzani paid the price for taking a high-risk strategy of working with the US, Israel and Iran. It was a complete failure. The Kurdish forces had been used to push the Ba’ath regime into cutting a deal. It was a temporary means of pressure and nothing more.

Once Iraq waged war on Iran, the Kurds were able to make new gains during the Iraq-Iran war. In response, Saddam would initiate a campaign against the Kurdish people which went as far as ethnic cleansing and included the use of poison gas. This campaign left an estimated 180,000 people dead. But this was when the US was arming the Iraqi regime to punish its former ally Iran. So very few people in the West cared.

Another twist would come in 1991. Saddam invaded and moved to annex Kuwait, the US responded with armed force to drive the Iraqi army out of the country. The Bush administration made cynical use of Arab and Kurdish grievances to justify the war. Though the US did nothing to support the uprisings against Saddam, the Western powers created a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. This laid the groundwork for Kurdish autonomy in Iraq.

Yet the US backed the Turkish counterinsurgency campaign against the PKK over the same timeline. In the 1990s the Clinton administration was selling vast amounts of arms to the Turkish government, as it organised its vicious campaign against the Kurds – killing 50,000 people, displacing more than 3 million people. Eventually the war reached a ceasefire and the peace process appeared to be moving forward until the Erdogan government shifted on Syria and the Kurds by extension.

Likewise, the US was more than happy to work with the Assad regime regardless of the way that the Ba’ath Party excluded the Syrian Kurds. But this would change when it came to the battle with ISIS. After some clashes, the Kurds reached a non-aggression pact with Assad and later would find themselves fighting for the Americans. Not being able to commit ground troops, the US has had to rely on the Syrian Kurds to do much of the fighting on the ground while Americans provided air cover.

Bad Victims Are Still Victims

The case of Syria alone is enough to convey the strange geopolitics which often ensnare Kurdistan. The complexities and awkward truths of Western foreign policy may make the Kurdish question a difficult subject for the mainstream media. It is certainly the case that the Kurdish cause lacks the kind of political capital as say the Palestinian struggle. Even though the two cases are both struggles for self-determination in the end.

The fact that Kurdish leaders have made terrible choices may be a deterrent for some on the left to support calls for Kurdish independence or even just autonomy. But it is not the case, as Christopher Hitchens always seemed to imply, that the Kurdish cause belongs to American imperialism. As if the Bush administration really just wanted to free the Kurds and the oil wells were just a bonus.

The left can uphold the cause of human emancipation without giving up on anti-imperialism. The liberation of the Kurds may not be fulfilled until the boundaries created by Empire are dissolved and the economic system that sustains the situation in the Middle East has been overhauled. The bourgeois forms of liberation made possible by liberal interventionism may hold some extrinsic value insofar as these means facilitate the emancipatory process. Though this would require a crude utilitarian reading.

However, the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a great injustice and the world is still living with the horrifying consequences of its results. The intrinsic value is in the liberation of human beings, and this was not a war of liberation. The limits of liberal internationalism are clear in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds are still in a very precarious position today. The copious quantities of oil under the feet of men like Barzani ultimately leaves sovereignty to the whim of foreign interests.

Photograph courtesy of Kurdishstruggle. Published under a Creative Commons license.