Next month, Iraq’s Kurds head to the polls in an eagerly-awaited independence referendum. Ahead of the vote, on September 25th, the country’s Kurdistan Regional Government is searching for inspiration from abroad. Brexit, unsurprisingly, is an obvious pick; many Kurds are hoping that Kurdexit could – as with Britain’s shock departure from the EU – finally become a reality.
Yet for all the parallels between the two movements, the champions of Brexit are lukewarm in their support for the Kurdish cause. Boris Johnson said that Brexit was ‘about the right of the people of this country to settle their own destiny’. He was somewhat colder on the issue of Kurdish independence. In his role as Foreign Secretary, he said that the move towards Kurdish independence must be undertaken only with the Iraqi government’s consent. Boris went on to warn that ‘unilateral moves towards Kurdish independence would not be in the interests of the people of the Kurdistan Region, Iraq or of wider regional stability’. Clearly, it seems, the right to self-determination only goes so far.
Kurdistan’s politicians will not be put off so easily, though. Falah Mustafa, the head of the Department of Foreign Relations of the KRG, says that a referendum is the path to a brighter future for the area and its people.
In a region of turmoil, Iraqi Kurdistan is something of a beacon of hope. At a Royal Society of Edinburgh speech in 2008, Lieutenant General Simon Mayall, the deputy commander of the multinational corps in Iraq, said the Kurdish region was “a totally safe area”. With much of Iraq increasingly divided along sectarian lines, Kurdistan has maintained its reputation as a relative centre of stability. The region now hosts more than two million displaced people and is a place of refuge for the many who fled the terror of Isis.
With Isis in its death throes and the war winding down, many Kurds are hopeful that their time has finally come. Kurds have been fighting for independence for almost 100 years, having been denied a country of their own when the Middle East was carved up at the end of the First World War. Their plight has not been easy: over the years, they suffered terribly under Saddam Hussein – including the gassing and killing of tens of thousands. Now, there is much for Kurds to be optimistic about and independence looks tantalisingly close. “The time has come for our own people to determine their future,” Falah Mustafa says.