Despite Victories Over ISIS, Iraq May Disintegrate After Kurds Vote for Independence

Two veteran American diplomats with long experience in the Middle East—and in Yugoslavia's bloody wars after it came apart—have very different views of the Kurdish referendum.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

On Monday, despite enormous public pressure from the governments of United States, Iran, Iraq and Turkey—including a lot of 21st century saber rattling—the Iraqi region of Kurdistan held a referendum on independence from Iraq. Support for this gambit by Kurdish Regional Government leader Masoud Barzani is not universal, but no one will be surprised if it is approved at the polls. And what happens then is far from clear.

The vote technically is non-binding, but Barzani wants to used it as a platform to negotiate secession. The neighboring governments, including the one Baghdad, want no such thing.

So, just as the breakaway “caliphate” of the so-called Islamic State is being crushed, in many cases with the help of Kurdish troops called “peshmerga,” this new move threatens to tear Iraq apart and inspire Kurdish separatists in Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

A nation of their own is a century-old dream of many Kurds, one that has been thwarted time and again since the end of World War I, sometimes politically, sometimes militarily, and often brutally. In a region already beset by so many wars and conflicts, this threatens to be a new and especially dangerous one.

What follow are excerpts of interviews with two veteran American diplomats intimately concerned with these issues. They were conducted by Arash Azizi for IranWire, a partner publication that shares content with The Daily Beast.

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Daniel Serwer, an ex-diplomat and a Professor of the Practice of Conflict Management at John Hopkins University, argues that the time is not right for Kurdish independence. Serwer served in the U.S. diplomatic corps during the breakup of Yugoslavia. A career diplomat with the rank of minister-counselor from 1994 to 1996, he served as a special envoy to the Bosnian Federation. He sought to mediate between the Croats and Muslims and had a leading role in the peace talks in Dayton, Ohio. He also led the peace-building efforts of the federal United States Institute of Peace in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Balkans in his 12 years there as vice president, from 1998 to 2010.

You’ve argued that the time is not right for holding a referendum for Kurdish independence. But proponents would say that they've waited for something like a century and the conditions will never be considered entirely perfect. What do you say to that?

My argument is that the time is bad for the U.S., since the referendum will give credence to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's irredentist behavior in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. It is also a bad time for Europe, because of Catalonia and Scotland [both have strong independence movements, and Spain has banned Catalonia from holding a referendum, leading to large protests and the arrests of several Catalan officials]. The US and European countries get a vote when they decide to recognize or not an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. In my opinion, they will not until Erbil [the Kurdish regional capital] has reached an agreement with Baghdad, which is still lacking.

I would add that the time isn't particularly good for the Kurds either, since they lack the financial resources and political cohesion required to make a success of independence.

In your analysis, you draw attention to the fact that the population living in the jurisdiction run by the Kurdistan Regional Government is overwhelmingly young. Why is this so relevant to the independence issue?

Because young Kurds have little or no familiarity with Arab Iraq, except for the chaos and strife they hear about every day. Young Kurds would vote overwhelmingly for independence.

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Some say that countries like Turkey, the U.S. and even Iran oppose the Kurdish referendum in words, but in practice they will come to accept it and work with it for pragmatic reasons. Do you think that's true?

Certainly the U.S. will not go to war over it. But Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara might.

Why do you think Israel gives so much support to the referendum?

Israel is the product of partition, it has maintained a good military and diplomatic relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan for a long time, and does good oil business with Erbil. Why would it not support a referendum that will weaken Iraq and disconcert Iran?

Is it likely that countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan would come to support independence for Kurdistan to see it as a bulwark against the rising power of Iran? Will the Arab League lose unity on the issue?

I'm not sure about this. Partition is not something unitary states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia like to see. Iraqi Kurdistan already functions as a counterweight to Iran, even though it is not independent. Only if Baghdad agrees are Amman and Riyadh likely to sign on.

Will Moscow's support for independence significantly raise the chances of an independent Kurdistan? Can Erbil count on its continued support?

No one should count on continuing support from a declining regional power as heavily dependent on oil and gas as Russia is. Russian interest in independent Kurdistan will likely stop the day independence is declared.

You had a key role in US efforts during one of the most complicated break-ups in the modern era, that of Yugoslavia. In what way does your experience there inform your take on Kurdistan?

I think velvet divorce is a lot better than war.

For the Kurds of Iraq, Peter Galbraith is a longtime friend—a leading U.S. diplomat who has publicly backed the independence effort.

Galbraith’s ties to the region go a long way back. In the late 1980s, when the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein faced little criticism from the U.S. or even the U.N. while it massacred many of its own Kurdish citizens, Galbraith was one of the first who drew attention to its deadly use of chemical weapons.

Saddam’s massacre of the Kurds on Bloody Friday, when his forces launched a chemical attack on the border town of Halabja on March 16, 1988, has since become a watershed moment in Kurdish history. Years later, when Iraq was invaded by the United States and the Saddam regime was toppled, Galbraith acted as an advisor to the Kurdish Regional Government.

Galbraith also had a front-row seat to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. He served as the first U.S. ambassador to independent Croatia, just months after Washington DC had strongly urged the Croats to not pursue independence. Lesser known is Galbraith’s role in the secession of another oil-rich state from a Muslim-majority country: East Timor. Galbraith served as a cabinet member in East Timor’s first transitional government and is hailed by many Timorese for his role in re-negotiating oil and gas contracts with Australia.

The Kurds have agitated for independence for decades but you’ve argued that the time is now right for holding a referendum. Why now?

The Kurds have aspired for independence for 100 years. They are a people in a geographically defined area who overwhelmingly want this, and some time has to be the right time for it. They have a de facto state and army. The world’s attention is centered on the Kurds in a way that it has never been, which is due to their fight against ISIS — which has also won them many friends in the United States.  

You’ve argued that countries in the region and on a world scale, including even Iran, might oppose the Kurdish referendum now, but in practice, they will come to work pragmatically with an independent Kurdistan. How do you explain this?

What typically happens in these situations is that you have a referendum, independence is declared and then the world basically adjusts. Twenty-eight countries have become independent since 1991 and the U.S. initially opposed all of them, except for South Sudan. For example, the U.S. was totally opposed to the way that Croatians went about and declared independence in June 1991. Back then, the U.S. was the absolute king of the world in a way that we are not anymore. James Baker, Secretary of State and a friend of President [George H.W.] Bush, came to Belgrade, met with the presidents of six republics and warned them against the breakup of Yugoslavia.

But the Croatian and Slovenian presidents announced the independence of their countries shortly after. The Bush administration also opposed the breakup of the Soviet Union. The president went to Kiev in August 1991 and gave what became known as the Chicken Kiev speech.

Yet, at the end of the same month, Ukraine was independent and we recognized it, as we did with Croatia and Slovenia. Europe was also opposed. But Germany and the Vatican came around to recognition and on January 15, 1992, the E.U. [then the European Community] recognized the independence of Croatia and Slovenia as did the U.S. on April 4, 1992. So within nine months, all this was achieved.

Iran has concerns because it has a Kurdish population which it has treated pretty badly, but on the other hand the choice that it faces is either a hostile relationship or a good relationship with an independent Kurdistan. You see, there is a logic to this. Once the referendum is held and independence declared, how do you put the genie back into the bottle? You can’t!

Why has Israel so adamantly supported an independent Kurdistan?

A lot of it has to do with the specific friendship that they’ve built with Iraqi Kurds. Jews were exiled out of Iraq after 1948, but Kurds have always protected them. Jews who left for Israel have a very positive view of Kurdistan, as opposed to Jews who come from Arab countries, who are very hostile to Arabs, and their embittered experiences makes them anti-Arab and extreme. Jews from Kurdistan, who remember the diversity of the place, have pushed for the recognition of Kurdistan.

To what degree is your take on Kurdistan informed by your experience of the break-up of Yugoslavia?

It is significantly informed because there were never was a chance of holding Yugoslavia together once Slovenia and Croatia voted for independence. You can say it was a tragedy but it’s irrelevant whether it was good or bad. It did break up and it couldn’t be held together.

Iraq can’t be held together either. Kurdistan has been de facto independent for 26 years; most of the people who will vote have no memory of living under Iraqi rule. They’ve never seen the Iraqi army in their country, they’ve never had Iraqis control their borders or doing the customs or setting up the school curriculum. Many don’t speak Arabic. How would it be possible to put Kurdistan back in Iraq? Only by massive force, which I am sure the international community doesn’t want—and Iraq doesn’t have the strength to do it anyway. Whether you like it or not, this is the reality and you have to accept it.

The other thing that is informed by my experience in Croatia is that you couldn’t hold Yugoslavia together but you could have prevented war. The great mistake of U.S. diplomacy was that it didn’t focus on preventing the war, which was possible, and we have a tragic result.

This time around, the U.S., Russians and Iranians should not focus on the mission impossible of holding Iraq together. They should make sure the separation is not violent and the two new countries have good relations.