Among the claims that circulated in the run-up to the Sept. 25 illegitimate referendum in the KRG was the assertion that the secession of the KRG is just like the founding of other Middle Eastern nation-states in history, and thus, supporting the KRG’s secession is a matter of supporting equality. This assertion relies on a misreading if not a distortion of Middle Eastern history. The secession of the KRG is unlike the founding of any other Middle Eastern nation-states because Turkey, Iran, and the various Arab states (Jordan, Syria, etc.) did not vote in a popular referendum to secede from other ethnic groups in favor of a smaller state that can be governed by their ethnic group. To the contrary, the Ottomans desperately tried to keep a much larger state, including millions of Arabs, Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis, spreading from Albania to Yemen (in fact the Ottoman description of the homeland was “from Shkoder [present-day Albania] to Basra”) together as one country and one political community. In fact, even though the Ottoman Empire surrendered to the Entente powers on Oct. 30, 1918, an Ottoman Turkish general was still defending and refusing to surrender the city of Medina, deep down in Hejaz in present-day Saudi Arabia. People of Turkey never voted to secede from the Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Jews, Maronites, or any other ethnic group. Likewise, the people of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, or Palestine were not consulted, and hence did not approve of being partitioned into the patchwork of nation-states that make up the modern Middle East. This is an important difference that sets apart the KRG’s unilateral decision to secede from the Arab (such as the largest Sunni Arab city neighboring the KRG, Mosul) and other Muslim and non-Muslim ethnic groups of Iraq in order to establish a much smaller Kurdish-majority state.
- Does any state in the world recognize a ‘unilateral right of secession’?
There is no country in the world that allows a unilateral “right of secession” (or “independence”) within its own borders; whenever “peaceful secession” occurred in modern history, it happened through mutual agreement of the central government and the seceding region. The Russian Federation itself seceded from the Soviet Union, and the leader of Russia at the time, Boris Yeltsin, signed an agreement with the Ukrainian and Belarussian presidents, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich, to dissolve the Soviet Union; and that’s why the independence of the 15 Soviet republics occurred rather peacefully. Slovakia and the Czech Republic mutually agreed to be two separate independent states; Slovakia did not unilaterally decide to secede by holding a referendum. The global public watched in astonishment what happens when a region unilaterally decides to hold a secessionist referendum in the case of Catalonia’s referendum to secede from Spain on Oct. 1.
- When, if at all, is secession justifiable or even necessary?
The Kurds of Iraq suffered under the Baathist regime in the 1970s and the 1980s. Most horrendously, thousands of Kurds were killed with chemical weapons in the Halabja massacre of March 1988. Such episodes of Kurdish suffering in Iraq are often mentioned as the reason, sometimes even the primary justification, for the KRG’s attempt to secede and establish an independent state. However, the international community does not endorse the right of secession and independence even for ethnic groups that are much more systematically massacred and mistreated, instead always urging negotiation with the other parties within the internationally recognized borders of the existing state. At least 40 percent of Crimean Tatars died as a result of their deportation to Central Asia by the Soviet authorities in 1944, and yet the international community did not endorse independent statehood for Crimean Tatars in Crimea even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992. All the Chechens were likewise deported to Central Asia in 1944, and tens of thousands of them were killed en route. Another 50,000 were killed during the Chechen wars since the early 1990s, and yet even when Chechnya declared independence in 1991, and even when it secured its borders and signed a peace treaty (Khasvyurt Accord) with Russia in 1996, no member state of the UN (apart from Taliban-led Afghanistan) recognized Chechnya’s declaration of independence.
Right next to the Kurdistan Regional Government, hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs have been mass murdered in Syria and Iraq, in a cycle of violence that began with the second American occupation of Iraq in 2003, and intensified with the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015. Yet no international actor endorses an independent Sunni Arab state in Mosul or in Aleppo, both of which are major cities with millions of people opposed to the sectarian governments in Baghdad and Damascus. There are of course similar examples in other regions of the world as well. Blacks suffered mass killing, systematic rape, and legal slavery for centuries, and another century of segregation under Jim Crow laws (1867-1960s). Even today millions of black men (up to one-third of all black men) are imprisoned at one point in their life. Despite a centuries-long history of severe persecution, no state recognized the right of self-determination demanded by black nationalists for the 40 million African-Americans in the United States. The reason for denying the right of secession is to encourage the use of existing channels of negotiation, bargaining, and compromise within the existing borders of the United States. Examples can be multiplied, but the main principle is clear: no matter how horrendous persecution may have been in the past, if there are channels of self-expression, negotiation, bargaining, and compromise in the present-day, secession is not justifiable. Secession should truly be “the last resort” for the most persecuted groups that have no other choices left to survive. A group whose language, religion, and way of life is completely banned and persecuted might be forced to secede in order to survive. For example, some claim that this is the case for Chechnya in Russia, or for the Uighurs in China.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has a very high level of regional autonomy, such that it is almost mostly self-governing. The Kurdish language is freely taught and propagated as the primary official language. Islam and other religions can be practiced, and the region has its own sources of revenue, taxation, and even its own separate armed forces (“army”), which is very rare in other autonomous regions around the world. The KRG had major disagreements about the share it gets from the Iraqi national budget, but such an economic dispute is precisely what can be solved through bargaining and compromise, especially given that KRG has extensive control over the economic activities in its territory. It is not very convincing to claim that a dispute over the budgetary distribution is what motivated political elites and the masses for such an existential decision as seceding from and thus breaking up Iraq. Kurds suffered terrible episodes of persecution under the Baathist regime during the 20th century, some of which were also shared by Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkmens. However, at least for the last 15 years, including today, the Kurdish language and culture has been protected, cultivated, cherished, and developed in Iraq by the KRG. Thus, it is not possible to argue that systematic suppression of the Kurdish language, religion, and way of life leave no other option but secession for the Kurdish identity to survive.
- Which is ‘natural’: Ethnic borders after Sykes-Picot, or a borderless Middle East?
Both the disintegration of the Syrian state and the breakup of Iraq through the referendum in the KRG are sometimes hailed as symptoms of the collapse of the “Sykes-Picot order” in the Middle East. However, some of the same commentators continue by asserting that new borders must be drawn that are more consistent with ethnic and sectarian divisions in the region. However, the Sykes-Picot borders were not “unnatural” because they violated some kind of natural ethnic or sectarian borders in the Middle East. Rather, they were unnatural because they imposed borders and divisions in the Ottoman Middle East, which had no borders at all between Baghdad and Damascus, Jerusalem and Mecca, Beirut and Mosul. Thus, if the goal is to repair the massive damage done to Middle Eastern societies by the Sykes-Picot borders, the only justifiable solution is to reconstruct a “borderless” Middle East from Istanbul to Aden and Basra. Unilateral secession of the Kurdistan Regional Government at the expense of alienating all the other ethnic groups in Iraq and other long-time allies such as Turkey does not seem to serve such a goal of regional integration.
By Sener Akturk
The writer is a faculty member at the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Koc University and author of Regimes of Ethnicity and Nationhood in Germany, Russia, and Turkey.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.