The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KR) has come a long way. Its formation as a de-facto state in October 1991 was a milestone in the history of the Kurds – a tumultuous and bloody history that saw Kurds suffer oppression, persecution, genocide and a civil war between two main parties led by Masoud Barzani (KDP) and Jalal Talabani (PUK). Unlike the Shia and Sunnis in the rest of Iraq, Kurds remedied divisions among themselves and have created an environment conducive to foreign investment, and also strong relations with regional neighbours and international powers. This has allowed them to expand their political and economic autonomy from the rest of Iraq. Gradual expansion of autonomy and ultimately independence are inevitably part of the roadmap for Kurdistan.
Still, the road to independence is rocky. A declaration of independence would evoke mixed reactions internationally and regionally. Landlocked by countries dismissive of the idea of a Kurdish state, Kurds must reach beyond the region to receive necessary recognition. Iran, Turkey and Syria consider a Kurdish state a threat to their sovereignty, as it would fuel aspirations for autonomy in provinces with substantial Kurdish populations.
While the Middle East remains in turmoil, with a poor record for regional cooperation, and with the Jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) plundering and pillaging, the KR is emerging as a promising economic player. Increasing economic integration seems to be leading its neighbours to reconsider their persistent policies against Kurdish aspirations. Ankara’s new rhetoric toward the KRG demonstrates this. Still, recognition remains a very unlikely scenario at this stage.
For the Kurds, there remains only one option, namely to ally with the international community to gain its support for a future bid. Winning the international community over is but only possible through a) accepting a responsible and gradual process towards independence, and b) through adhering to international standards. The by-product of both a) and b) is a fertile ground for government reforms.
The desire for independence is already transforming KR with its deep divisions and strong roots in tribal and religious necessities into a forward looking and increasingly internationalised society. It is this longing that has turned the de-facto status of KR into a potent engine for good governance. With independence not yet in sight, institutions will increasingly be exposed to democratic and transparent processes as a useful tool for seeking international legitimacy. On this road, the system of governance will gradually leap out of its infancy. By 2020, Kurdistan will inevitably grow to be more democratic with opportunities for social justice and equality. A fairer justice system, a more efficient and a transparent public administration, respect and protection for human rights, and the rule of law will more and more find their way into Kurdish society.
Today, the international community considers Kurds as allies in the fight against IS. Recent military support for the Peshmerga forces marks the beginning of a new chapter of KR’s role as a trustworthy partner. This significant change of attitude on the part of the international community is notably not built on the evil nature of IS. This trust is entirely a product of KR’s efforts for a cooperative role with the international community. While KR continues to strive to adhere to its international obligations, it is then imperative for the international community to clearly and constantly remind KR’s leadership to maintain the chosen course, which allows democratic institutions to flourish. Departing from this path would severely undermine a hard-earned trust and consequently lead to a possible breakaway of essential international support.
This article was originally published in Global Brief, issue 16 (November 2014), section: Strategic Futures, page 62-63. See: http://issuu.com/globalbriefmagazine/docs/gb16_issuu
Global Brief is a top-tier international affairs quarterly magazine in partnership with the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs at Toronto’s York University: www.globalbrief.ca