With Kurdish independence closer than ever, Canada needs to prepare a response

A referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurds is set for September. Given Canada’s support of Kurdish forces in the country — and by extension their nation-building efforts — it can’t avoid involvement in the future of Iraq, writes Michael Petrou. 

By: /
June 19, 2017
Kurdish flag
A Kurdish flag flutters atop the Citadel of Erbil, northern Iraq June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

For three years, Canada has been helping to build a Kurdish state in northern Iraq while declaring its opposition to that very project. It’s a political sleight of hand that’s no longer sustainable.

Earlier this month, officials in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced they would hold a referendum on independence on Sept. 25.

Government spokespersons say Canada is committed to the unity and territorial integrity of Iraq, but the military assistance and training Canadian special forces provide to the Kurds in their fight against the so-called Islamic State jihadist group also strengthens and emboldens them for an eventual confrontation with Baghdad.

Such a confrontation is now all-but-inevitable. Canada no doubt hoped it would take place far in the future, when Canada need not be caught in the middle. It won’t.

The referendum results, which will almost certainly be a majority vote for independence, will not necessarily lead to an immediate declaration of independence. The KRG may be attempting to strengthen its bargaining position for eventual negotiations with Baghdad regarding the extent of Kurdish sovereignty.

But this is a dangerous game. A Kurdish government that obtains a strong mandate for independence and then fails to act on it risks losing the support of its citizens. The referendum may have a momentum of its own.

For many international observers, including in Canada, Kurdish independence would be a just outcome. The Kurds lack a state of their own, and their incorporation into other nations over the last century has consistently resulted in discrimination or worse. In Iraq, their suffering has been genocidal. Surely if any stateless people “deserve” a country of their own, it is the Kurds.  

Others in the West see the Iraqi Kurds’ success in fighting ISIS, their liberal values and their desire to strengthen ties to the world’s democracies, and imagine that a Kurdish state would be a resolute ally in an unfriendly region. This, too, is probably true.

But none of it means the creation of a Kurdish state will be straightforward or even bloodless.

"Canada no doubt hoped this would take place far in the future, when it need not be caught in the middle. It won't."

During a 2014 trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, I hired an off-duty Peshmerga, or Kurdish soldier, as a driver. Cheerful and wiry, he wore his military uniform while working with me, stuffed a folding-stock Kalashnikov assault rifle between the driver’s and passenger’s seats and kept beer in the trunk to drink on a scenic hilltop when we finished for the day.

Because of the uniform and the gun, soldiers manning roadblocks typically waved us through without scrutiny or hassle. We could drive further south than might otherwise have been possible — to areas claimed by both the KRG and Iraq’s central government, where Kurdish Peshmerga provide security but residents are an ethnic and religious mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, Sunnis and Shias.

We visited towns such as Tuz Khurmatu, where there were blast walls and buildings damaged by suicide bombers, and felt a tension that was absent from the Kurdish capital, Irbil, two hours north. It is there that the future borders of a Kurdish state will be drawn, in places where many support Kurdish independence but many do not. To imagine that such areas might be divided without further violence requires an optimism that Iraq’s history gives little reason to justify.

And if a Kurdish state is successfully hived off Iraq, would it be good for those who live there? It’s easy to look at the proto-state the Kurds have already built and conclude the answer must be yes. Kurdistan is far safer than anywhere else in Iraq. Long-time residents marvel with pride at how much has changed in Kurdistan, at how much they have accomplished, since Saddam Hussein, who gassed and shot them by the tens of thousands, was overthrown in 2003.

But an independent Kurdistan would still have to live in the same neighbourhood it does now. No other regional power — with the possible exception of Israel — would welcome Kurdish independence. Turkey, which currently enjoys good relations with the KRG, might grudgingly accept such an eventuality, but its foreign ministry calls even the referendum a “grave mistake.” 

Turkey, Iran and Syria all have sizeable Kurdish minorities, which makes them view the prospect of a Kurdish state in what’s now northern Iraq with trepidation. They would not want the new state to thrive for fear of encouraging separatism among Kurds in their own countries. And because an independent Kurdistan would be landlocked and require cooperation from at least one neighbouring state to export oil (assuming the Kurds retain control of oil reserves in Kirkuk province), those neighbours would have significant leverage.

Canada can’t avoid playing a role in what happens next. Ottawa is enmeshed in Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish affairs because of the help it gives in the fight against ISIS. This isn’t a fight Canada could or should have avoided. It was reasonable, also, to offer that help primarily to the Iraqi Kurds, who were facing ISIS’ onslaught when Canada entered the war in 2014, and who were the group’s most effective opponents.

But that intervention has consequences beyond the defeat of Islamic State in Iraq, which draws nearer every day. When Kurdistan feels safe from ISIS, it will turn its attention to securing independence from Baghdad. Ottawa needs to prepare a response beyond rote declarations of support for Iraqi unity. It has less time to do so than it might once have hoped.