The West has continuously admired the Kurdistan Region for three years: for fighting the world’s enemy, the Islamic State (IS); for its admirable inclusiveness of minorities; for sheltering nearly two million refugees and IDPs, and for practicing a fledgling democracy in sharp contrast with most of its neighbors.
The Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) relations with the Western world have been improving, as indicated by numerous visits of Western diplomats to Erbil and the opening of several consulates in the Region.
And yet, despite all of the above, Western powers, one after the other abandoned the Kurds and their government at a time when they approach the age-old dream of no longer being subordinate to a hostile government.
At a time when Kurdistan sought support from its allies, Western powers turned their backs on Kurds who have made, and continue to make, sacrifices in the ground fight against the world’s enemy, IS, and have shed blood to do so in areas outside of their ancient land.
In declaring their opposition to a democratic referendum, in line with international laws and conventions, they undermined the ideas they preach.
According to their double standards, when one of Kurdistan's political parties disagrees with the referendum, it is not interpreted as a sign of freedom of expression and democracy but as “division” and “lack of unity.”
What Kurds, in millions, rally for at home and abroad is not respected. It is overlooked. Democracy seems to be good, but only for the powerful.
Ironically, Iran and the US agree on opposing the referendum, though not for the same motives. Iran is afraid of losing its iron-fisted power over its own suppressed Kurdish population. On its end, the US is wary of Iran’s widespread influence in Iraq.
The United States changed its position on the referendum a few times, but eventually, the State Department’s rejection of the vote was followed by the White House’s refusal to support KRG. Finally, the UK rejected the move, and more countries jumped on the bandwagon.
Political analyst Hemn Seyedi told Kurdistan 24 on the phone he sees four reasons for the complete U-Turn of the West on Kurdistan.
To begin with, in international relations, countries cannot openly support secession as it would be “fertile ground for conspiracy theories,” he said, akin to a declaration of war.
The exception would be when countries are openly hostile, such as Iran’s support of Palestine and Israel’s support of Kurdistan independence, he said.
In addition, Western states, especially Trump’s new administration, would like to put an end to costly interventions in the Middle East. With a divided Iraq, their goal for creating a “democratic” Iraq would also have failed, he added.
Moreover, any change in the turbulent Middle East would create new responsibilities they would not necessarily want to shoulder. “Therefore they see it in their interest to maintaining the status-quo,” Seyedi explained.
Finally, the US wishes to woo Shia officials in Iraq in an “American campaign” to curb Iran’s influence in the country. Washington hopes that a Shia-led Iraq would be different from the Shia-led Iran and would become an ally, the Kurdish analyst concluded.
As such, the United States’ refusal to support the referendum could only be rhetorical and part of an internationally-accepted diplomatic attempt, as Professor David Romano suggests, “to not alienate the Arab world.”
He also told Kurdistan 24 that American leaders “are incapable of thinking outside the box and deviating from standard routines until presented with no other choices and that the standard routine is to defend the current borders.”
WESTERN PRESSURE HAS UNIFIED KURDS
Nonetheless, the Western and regional pressure has had the positive effect of unifying Kurds across the ideological spectrum.
The support for the referendum is spreading to way beyond the Kurdistan Region, as analyst Amberin Zaman told Kurdistan 24 in an email exchange.
“It has reinforced President Masoud Barzani’s standing among Kurds and stiffened his resolve. His refusal to bend to such pressure has put the lie to the myth that the United States always calls the shots,” Zaman said.
The neighbors are panicking, and their rhetorical war has increased so much that the prospect of violence has increased. In fact, the whole world has been hysterical about a legal referendum while turning a blind eye to blatant war crimes in places like Turkey and Myanmar.
Analysts who dismissed the threats as mere rhetoric a few weeks ago now think Kurdistan should be prepared for the possibilities of unrest.
“Whether Turkey follows on its threats to take concrete action, particularly if it shuts the border or shuts off the oil pipeline, it will obviously have a severe impact, and as its effects are felt, it may well weaken support for the leadership over time,” Zaman said.
“Equally, the potential for violence and provocations in Kirkuk is deeply worrying. But nobody said this was going to be easy,” she concluded.
Kurdistan is going through a critical time. Whether or not military action is taken against it for holding a legitimate and democratic vote looms large in the minds of Kurds as they anxiously count down the days with both excitement and trepidation.