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Press Play:
What The International Media Are Saying About Kurdish Independence

Cathrin Schaer
Iraqi Kurdistan is in the spotlight and the international media are reporting on the upcoming independence referendum, far and wide. But a focus on international opposition, means that important context is often missing.
20.09.2017  |  Berlin

While recent front pages around the world have been reserved for earthquakes and hurricanes, the referendum on independence in Iraqi Kurdistan has never been too far behind. Mostly this has been due to widespread international concern about what the referendum will mean, and what kind of problems it could cause, either in the lead up to the event, or afterwards.

Perhaps the most interesting thing for Iraqis about international coverage of the independence referendum, scheduled for Sept. 25, is the sympathy with which the whole world appears to view the Kurdish people of Iraq.

Most reports freely acknowledge that the Kurdish are the world’s largest ethnic minority without their own state. Almost every writer details the trials and tribulations that Iraq’s Kurds have gone through and, in particular, what they suffered under former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. The heinous chemical weapons attack on the city of Halabja, in which thousands died, is not forgotten.

But after expressing understanding, most Western media go on to talk about international disapprobation of the referendum. The list of friends and enemies who oppose this Kurdish example of direct democracy grows longer by the day.

Long-time Iraq watchers know that intractable problems behind the fight have remained unresolved for years. It hardly seems likely that a populist referendum is going to solve them.

European media have found it particularly notable that this time, the US – generally a staunch ally of Iraqi Kurdistan – couldn’t do the back room deals their envoys usually do, to postpone the referendum. Many analysts noted that the statement the US eventually issued on the topic was unusually harsh.

Turkish and Iranian opposition is also always explained by reporters: Both fear Kurdish independents in their own countries.

Germany is home to the largest Kurdish diaspora in the world and the Germans are feted in Iraqi Kurdistan for helping the local military with weaponry to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Yet the German foreign office has also expressed disapproval of the referendum.

In some German media, the referendum was praised. But often in these opinion pieces, the semi-autonomous Kurdish zones in Syria are also a focus, possibly because many left-wing Germans are admiring of the brand of politics known as “democratic confederalism” practised by the mostly Syrian Kurds present in those areas.

The northern city of Kirkuk is continuously referenced as a “flashpoint”; violent incidents or political stoushes that wouldn’t normally generate a paragraph in the international media are currently seen as signs of rapidly impending doom.

So how does the world see the Kurdish referendum? There is sympathy for the Kurdish desire for statehood; the Kurdish are not evil or wrong in expressing this desire. But there are conditions and it’s probably not a good idea, not right now.  That’s the general argument.

What doesn’t tend to get as much of a mention in most shorter stories in the international media is any acknowledgment of the Kurdish region’s complicated internal politics.

With the exception of several outstanding analyses and op-eds, most of the world’s press barely mentions the fact that that the Iraqi Kurdish parliament has been suspended for over a year and only recently limped back toward any sort of semblance of activity – and even then, opponents of the referendum refused to join in.

They tend not to explain that a financial crisis has wracked the region for almost as long, devastating local employment and business and fomenting local unrest. Also generally ignored: That, despite appearances, Iraqi Kurdistan is far from a genuine democracy, and even further from incorrupt, or even united. Even in Iraqi Kurdistan, many locals would freely acknowledge this –  but it doesn’t stop them from longing for statehood anyway.

One of the most important factors in this whole situation, according to his critics anyway, is that the main proponent of this referendum – Massoud Barzani - is not even Iraqi Kurdistan’s legitimate president right now.

As the Washington Post recently wrote: “Kurdish critics of Barzani say he is using the vote to solidify his power and legacy at a time when his authority is weak because of a financial crisis.”

If you believe this, then Barzani is cruelly harnessing a popular sentiment, a long-held dream that nobody in Iraqi Kurdistan can oppose, for his own ends.

As a result, the dilemma around the passionate and understandable (and, in many ways, legitimate) demands for Kurdish independence are often framed as a fight between Baghdad and Erbil, something that might only need a little more negotiation to resolve.

But long-time Iraq watchers know that intractable problems behind that fight – around subjects like oil revenues, citizenship, military funding and borders - have remained unresolved for literally years, despite sideways steps, deals signed and various promises made and broken by both sides. It hardly seems likely that a populist referendum on Kurdish independence is going to solve any of those issues either. It’s like using a giant crayon to try to replicate a delicately shaded Monet.  

If Kurdish independence comes, or even if Kurdish confederation is possible, it will evolve, and only after a lengthy process.

Analyst Michael Knights wrote this for the BBC: “Many senior Iraqi politicians have confided to me in private that they believe [Iraqi Kurdistan] is slowly and irreversibly becoming an independent state. But no Iraqi leader can say this publicly, not least when local and national elections loom ... What this all means is that the day after the referendum may look very much like the day before,” he concludes.

All of which gives rise to a question that the Iraqi media should have been asking themselves: Who has the most to gain from this popular, and populist, referendum, from this communal outpouring of emotion? Will it be the Kurdish people? The answer requires careful consideration and scrutiny of the kind that, due to the over-heated environment in Iraq over the referendum, may simply not be possible.