ERBIL, Iraq – Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, has an urgent message for world leaders:
With the Mideast in chaos and the Islamic State “caliphate” entrenched across swaths of Syria and Iraq, now is the time to rethink the boundaries of the region. But unlike 100 years ago, when Britain and France divided up the Arab world, Mideast leaders must partake in the process.
Part of the Mideast reboot, Barzani hopes, will be the emergence of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. He wants to hold a nonbinding referendum this year asking his fellow Iraqi Kurds to endorse the idea of independence. (The vote wouldn’t involve an actual declaration.)
Barzani is on to something important that Western nations haven’t yet grasped.
“There has already been a redrawing of the Middle East,” he told me. We were inside his ornate, two-story presidential palace on a mountain overlooking the Kurdish capital. He was dressed in a neatly pressed version of the traditional Kurdish baggy fatigues and his signature red and white headdress.
“If you look at the Middle East, the old borders are only on paper,” he said. “There are new realities on the ground.”
That is certainly the case in Iraq, where the ouster of Saddam Hussein unleashed sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites that has splintered the country. In Syria, the regime’s brutal response to a peaceful uprising has torn the country apart, largely on sectarian lines.
This sectarian strife has opened the way for the Islamic State to base itself in Sunni areas on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. Without separating Sunnis and Shiites from each other – to some degree, since there are still mixed populations in cities – the killings will continue. Those separations could involve new federal regions or more formal separation. But new realities must be taken into account.
As for the Kurds, they have been dreaming of independence since the 1923 Lausanne Treaty between the World War I allies and post-Ottoman Turkey. That document reneged on a promise to carve a Kurdish state out of the remains of the Ottoman empire and allow this non-Arab ethnic group to have its own home.
Iraq’s Kurds have had an increasing degree of autonomy since 1991, when the United States protected them with a no-fly zone against Saddam. Despite a severe economic crisis and internal political strains, the Kurdish region is the most stable part of Iraq, and has played a huge role in repelling the Islamic State. It has also welcomed minorities, including tens of thousands of Christian and Yazidi refugees.
Barzani believes an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could be an oasis of stability for the entire Mideast.
I asked whether his vision of statehood would include the Kurdish-populated portions of neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria, a prospect that greatly unnerves Ankara and Tehran.
“I think each part of Kurdistan within the last 100 years has its own special status,” he answered quickly. “Our focus and strategy is for Iraqi Kurds alone.”
Barzani’s critics argue that the referendum is only meant as a distraction from his domestic problems. And the external barriers to independence are high:
Iraq’s central government opposes independence, as does Iran. Turkey – which has excellent relations with Iraq’s Kurds – is unlikely to warm to the idea now that it is embroiled in conflict with its own Kurds and those of Syria.
Moreover, the United States is still wedded to the idea of a unified Iraq, and won’t endorse Kurdish independence, as the White House has made clear to Barzani.
The Kurdish leader says he will consult with the neighbors, and with Baghdad. “Independence would be based on talks and dialogue and negotiations with others,” he said.
As for Washington, he adds, “If the U.S. will not be against us, will not oppose it, we will be very grateful.”
Despite these obstacles, the referendum idea should focus attention on the failure of the current forms of Iraqi and Syrian statehood.
“I think it will be very difficult to have a united Syria again,” Barzani says. “A new form of federation or confederation is possible,” he suggests, given the multisectarian nature of the country. Otherwise, “after all that bloodshed it’s not possible to heal the wounds there.”
Barzani believes that Russian intervention in Syria, particularly in the war against the Islamic State, could be in the interest of the Kurds when considering the need for stability.
“A few days ago,” he says, “there was a statement from Moscow that federalism is a good solution for Syria and I believe this is a good statement.” But, he hastened to add, “it is for the Syrian people to decide.”
Would a federal state that gave Sunnis their own autonomous area similar to Kurdistan – a sort of Sunnistan – enable the Iraqi state to survive?
“A Sunnistan is one of the possibilities,” Barzani said. Then, only half joking, he added, “On the ground we already have that. It is called Da’esh-istan,” using an Arabic name for the Islamic State. “Da’esh eroded all the borders between Syria and Iraq.”
As for the Kurds, Barzani insisted that the current federation between Iraqi Arabs and Kurdistan had “failed openly. If it had succeeded, our plans for a referendum might not be on the table.”
“Our people must decide (if confederation is possible), but the current status is not possible,” he said. “We can’t go on like this forever.”
Unlike a federal system – with one central government, as we have in the United States – a confederation means a loose link between two independent states.
Ideally, Barzani’s referendum – no matter how it turns out – should prod Iraq’s neighbors and the West into some new thinking.
For one thing, Washington should back Barzani’s ideas on confederation, a format that might hold Iraq (barely) together.
For another, the West should consider his suggestion of “an international conference with the major powers and regional powers to reach a new understanding and consensus . and to channel this into a broader new order in the area” that might be more stable.
A pipe dream? Perhaps.
But new state structures may be the only way to stanch the region’s sectarian bloodletting. As Barzani notes, the old maps are already obsolete.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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