The Timing of the Kurdish Referendum is Bad for the Kurds and the US

Published by IranWire

Among the US intelligentsia, there are those who oppose the idea of an independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, and argue that the time is not right for Kurdish independence. Daniel Serwer, ex-diplomat and a Professor of the Practice of Conflict Management at John Hopkins University, is one of them. Serwer wrote an influential piece for the Washington Post to argue his opposition.

Professor Serwer’s past shares something with one of the Kurds’ best friends in the intelligentsia community, Peter Galbraith, to whom IranWire also spoke. Like Galbraith, Serwer served in the US diplomatic corps during the break-up of Yugoslavia. A career diplomat with the rank of minister-counselor from 1994 to 1996, he served as a special envoy to the Bosnian Federation. He sought to mediate between the Croats and Muslims and had a leading role in the peace talks in Dayton, Ohio that stamped the break-up of Yugoslavia. He also led the peace-building efforts of the federal United States Institute of Peace in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and the Balkans in his 12 years there as vice president, from 1998 to 2010.

Professor Serwer spoke to IranWire about the Kurdish referendum, which is to be held on September 25.


You’ve argued that the time is not right for holding a referendum for Kurdish independence. But proponents would say that they’ve waited for something like a century and the conditions will never be considered entirely perfect. What do you say to that?

My argument is that the time is bad for the US, since the referendum will give credence to Putin’s irredentist behavior in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova. It is also a bad time for Europe, because of Catalonia and Scotland [both have strong independence movements, and Spain has banned Catalonia from holding a referendum, leading to large protests and the arrests of several Catalan officials]. The US and European countries get a vote when they decide to recognize or not an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. In my opinion, they will not until Erbil has reached an agreement with Baghdad, which is still lacking.

I would add that the time isn’t particularly good for the Kurds either, since they lack the financial resources and political cohesion required to make a success of independence.


In your analysis, you draw attention to the fact that the population living in the jurisdiction run by the Kurdistan Regional Government is overwhelmingly young. Why is this so relevant to the independence issue? 

Because young Kurds have little or no familiarity with Arab Iraq, except for the chaos and strife they hear about every day. Young Kurds would vote overwhelmingly for independence.


Some say that countries like Turkey, the US and even Iran oppose the Kurdish referendum in words, but in practice they will come to accept it and work with it for pragmatic reasons. Do you think that’s true? 

Certainly the US will not go to war over it. But Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara might.


Why do you think Israel gives so much support to the referendum? 

Israel is the product of partition, it has maintained a good military and diplomatic relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan for a long time, and does good oil business with Erbil. Why would it not support a referendum that will weaken Iraq and disconcert Iran?


Is it likely that countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan would come to support independence for Kurdistan to see it as a bulwark against the rising power of Iran? Will the Arab League lose unity on the issue? 

I’m not sure about this. Partition is not something unitary states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia like to see. Iraqi Kurdistan already functions as a counterweight to Iran, even though it is not independent. Only if Baghdad agrees are Amman and Riyadh likely to sign on.


Will Moscow’s support for independence significantly raise the chances of an independent Kurdistan? Can Erbil count on its continued support? 

No one should count on continuing support from a declining regional power as heavily dependent on oil and gas as Russia is. Russian interest in independent Kurdistan will likely stop the day independence is declared.


You had a key role in US efforts during one of the most complicated break-ups in the modern era, that of Yugoslavia. In what way does your experience there inform your take on Kurdistan? 

I think velvet divorce is a lot better than war.

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