We’ve seen a lot of independence referendums in the past decade. First, South Sudan voted yes to independence on January 15, 2011 and more recently Scotland voted no on September 14, 2014. In this year alone, on June 11, Puerto Rico (with low turnout) voted overwhelming for U.S. statehood, while on September 28 Iraqi Kurdistan voted for independence, and on October 2 Catalonia followed (which I’ve recently written about). The Kurdish independence referendum, unlike Puerto Rico, had both a high turnout (72%) and high quantity of pro-independence voters (93%).
At this point you may be asking, who are the Kurds? Numbering roughly around 30 million, the Kurds are a diverse central Asian people, unified by a shared race, language, and history. Interestingly, Kurds are religiously very diverse: while a vast majority (at least in Iraq) identify as Sunni Muslims, there are also Kurds who practice Alevism (a Shi’ite sect), Ahl-i Haqq (Yarsanism), Yazidism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity.
Where is Kurdistan? While there are often disputes over greater and lesser Kurdistan, the Kurds live in the shaded areas, predominately in Iraq and Turkey. Source: CIA.
Kurdish nationalism and independence movements have far reaching roots. (Don’t worry, this time I won’t go back to ancient history and discuss the fascinating Hurrians and other Western Semitic peoples that inhabited the region.) During the the Middle Ages Kurdish principalities and emirates had varying degrees of self-rule, but then the Ottoman Turks conquered the region and asserted dominance over most of Kurdistan until the end of World War I.
Even before the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, however, Kurdish nationalism was on the rise. When the Ottoman Empire fell, the European allies signed the Treaty of Sèvres, seeking to divide up Anatolia among the different European powers in a move similar to the later British and French mandate systems (of the Middle East?). The Treaty of Sèvres guaranteed a Kurdistan state under the British domain, but the remaining Ottomans like Mustafa Kemal Ataturk successfully resisted this European imperialism, even aided by local Kurds. Instead, the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 replaced the Treaty of Sèvres and formally established Turkey’s borders, erasing Kurdistan from the world map.
Under Turkish rule, Kurdish uprisings in the 20s and 30s were met with harsh punishment, including forced resettlement, a restriction on the Kurdish language, a ban on Kurdish names and customs, and redesignation as “Mountain Turks” to delegitimize Kurdish nationalism and identity. Other parts of Kurdistan were given to the French and British mandates and Persia, in the modern states of Syria, Iraq, and Iran, countries which have been (if not equally, similarly) unkind to their Kurds.
While armed independence movements began among Iraqi and Turkish Kurds in the 60s and 70s, the modern independence movement picked up steam during the Syrian Civil war fighting ISIS while neutral to the Syrian government forces in the twenty-first century. First, in January 2014, Kurdish parties declared the creation of "autonomous administrations" in the three "cantons" of Afrin, Kobane and Jazira and later in March 2016, they announced the establishment of a "federal system" that included disputed non-Kurdish majority areas, including the important oil fields of Kirkuk. Like Madrid and Catalonia, Iraq declared the referendum unconstitutional. After the referendum in both Kurdistan and the disputed areas, the Iraqi government has retaken the disputed areas, a harsh blow against the Kurds.
Symbol of Kurdistan. Source: Kurdistan Regional Government.
Unlike the surrounding Arab states, concerned with their own Kurdish and other minority nationalist movements, the US has always tacitly supported Kurdish independence, including providing arms to the Kurdish rebels during the Syrian Civil War. On this Friday, Turkey announced that Trump promised to stop arming the rebels in Syria, a break from Obama’s policy. Just as Catalonia failed to sway the EU and the world, Kurdistan failed to sway any regional allies (with the exception of Israel, whose support arguably did more harm than good).
The arrested development of new countries after popular independence referendums in both Catalonia and Kurdistan, as well as many historical examples of independence movements (take the U.S. for instance) demonstrate that a referendum means nothing without the international recognition and support.