On Sept. 25, ethnic Kurds in the semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq streamed to the polls to voice their overwhelming support for independence and the formation of a Kurdish state. Upwards of 92 percent of those casting ballots voted “yes” in an election with over 70 percent voter turnout. The governments of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, the U.K., and the U.S. were quick to denounce the vote, calling it unconstitutional, destabilizing, and even threatening military action in some cases.
But it’s about time the Kurds got their state. For nearly 100 years, they have endured countless abuses as minorities in countries with illogical borders drawn by colonial powers with little regard for ethnic and cultural complexities. They have their own language, music, food, culture, and political philosophy. And if instability in the Middle East means that they should have to wait, they’re going to have to wait for a long time.
The Kurds are an ethnic group indigenous to the plains of ancient Mesopotamia and the highlands of what is now northern Iraq, southwestern Turkey, northeastern Syria, and western Iran. Though they share the same religion—Sunni Islam—with most of their neighbors, they are culturally different in most other ways.
The Kurds were part of the Ottoman Empire until its collapse at the end of World War I, when the Middle East was divided into colonies by Britain, France, and other imperial European powers. The creation of modern day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, through treaties following the war, divided the Kurdish population and crushed their dreams of an independent Kurdistan. Since then, the Kurds have been mistreated, oppressed, and murdered by Iraqi, Syrian, and Turkish regimes.
In 1988, the Iraqi army used sarin and mustard gas on Kurdish populations in Halabja. The attack killed 5,000 people and injured 8,000 more, making it the single deadliest chemical weapons attack in human history and the most significant event in an extensive and brutal military campaign perpetrated by the Hussein regime against ethnic Kurds.
The Syrian government has denied citizenship and other basic individual rights to over 300,000 members of its Kurdish population since the 1960s. It has also forcibly removed Kurds from their homes and moved in Syrians in an attempt to “Arabize” the land.
There are more than 15 million Kurds in Turkey, more than in any other country. As a result, the Turkish government has long seen the creation of an independent Kurdistan as one of the greatest potential threats to national security, and they have tried to prevent it by repressing expressions of Kurdish culture, including banning Kurdish names and language. This repression has fueled the rise of the PKK, a violent and radical political group of separatist Kurds in Turkey. The fighting between the Turks and the PKK has killed thousands on both sides, including more than 2,000 since violent flare-ups in 2015 ended a previous ceasefire.
Despite the abuse they’ve taken, Kurds have fought bravely alongside Iraqi and Syrian forces since 2014 in the war against the Islamic State. The Peshmerga, an elite Kurdish militia in Iraq, was instrumental in the battle to reclaim Mosul, and the Syrian Democratic Forces, a primarily Kurdish militia in Northern Syria, is on the ground fighting ISIS in Raqqa as we speak.
The international community has decided, however, that the Kurds need to wait. The New York Times Editorial Board wrote a piece titled “Kurds’ Risky Dream of Independence,” claiming that Kurdish secession “would be a mistake, increasing turmoil in a part of the world roiled by the fight against the Islamic State and further threatening Iraq’s territorial integrity.” However, for the Kurds, it would be much riskier to remain a part of Iraq. In a response to the Times, the Kurdish Ambassador to the U.S. wrote that they “are right to say that Kurdistan’s independence has risks, but [they] don’t consider the risks of staying in Iraq. From its foundation, Iraq has treated Kurds as second-class citizens, culminating in a 1980s genocide that entailed the destruction of 4,500 villages and the murder or disappearance of an estimated 182,000 Kurds…”
The Times editorial also argues that the referendum should be postponed because the Kurdish regional government is in debt, corrupt, and has been accused of discriminating against minorities. But it is this type of hypocrisy and paternalism that has engendered so much hate for the U.S. abroad and created so many foreign policy headaches in the Middle East as a result. If the elimination of corruption, national debt, and discrimination are preconditions of sovereignty, then the U.S. has no valid claim to it.
The Islamic State has been all but kicked out of Iraq and the nation faces an uncertain future. Its current borders make no sense, and maintaining them can only lead to more war and suffering. There will be no easy solutions, but the creation of an independent Kurdistan is a necessary one—the Kurds have waited far too long and endured far too much to postpone independence.