The late Christopher Hitchens once wrote that “If the Bahraini royal family can have an embassy, a state, and a seat at the UN, why should the twenty-five million Kurds not have a claim to autonomy?”
Indeed, Bahrain attained its independence from Iran following a referendum in 1971. So, surely, there’s no reason why it should be illegitimate for the Kurdish people to follow a similar path to self-determination.
It was true then and it’s true now. Yet in the aftermath of the overwhelming vote in favour of Kurdish independence, it seems as though Canada is looking for some sort of moral retreat. We should instead be supporting our Kurdish allies, and respecting their clearly expressed democratic will.
Last month, on the eve of the referendum, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to offer his own thoughts, citing the fact that other nations refrained from weighing in on Quebec’s 1995 sovereignty referendum. Of course, it’s preposterous to compare Kurdistan and Quebec or to suggest that cobbling together of Iraq and the subsequent suffering and attempted genocide of the Kurds in any way compares to Quebec’s situation.
In fact, Canada was among the countries — including the U.S. — urging the Kurds to cancel the vote. The eagerness and determination of the Kurdish people is not something we should ignore. As former U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey recently noted, the Kurds are fearful “that Iraq is coming under the domination of Iran and the Shi‘ite militias.”
Not surprisingly, Iran is strongly opposed to any sort of Kurdish independence. So, too, is the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. These are not exactly Canada’s friends, so perhaps we should be leery about taking the same side as them.
There is the more pressing matter of Iraq’s dismay at the vote itself and the outcome, and similar outrage from Turkey. Certainly, Canada has a role to play in trying to ease tensions and ensure that meaningful negotiations can occur. But our starting point should not be to throw the Kurds under the bus and dismiss or ignore their referendum result.
Even Iraq’s prime minister accepts that the Kurds are within their rights to decide their future.
Earlier this year, while criticizing the Kurdish regional government for the timing of the referendum, Haider al-Abadi admitted that, “The desire of our Kurdish brothers to create a country of their own is their right given the desire and the objective and nobody has the right to deter them.”
Kurdish independence is obviously not going to happen overnight. There is, as of now, no detailed plan for how independence would unfold, and there has been no declaration of independence. The Kurds and the Iraqi government disagree on what would even constitute a border, and the city of Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields are going to be a major point of contention.
Given that Canadian troops are fighting against ISIS alongside Kurdish and Iraqi troops, exacerbated tensions could prove problematic for us. We can and should support a pragmatic, careful approach going forward, but we should also accept and acknowledge the desires and wishes of the Kurdish people.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Israel has been a strong supporter of the Kurds and their quest for self-determination. Canada’s strong support for Israel and the idea of a Jewish homeland has long been a pillar of our foreign policy, as it should be. Many of the same principles exist with regard to Kurdistan.
Frankly, is there a more compelling case for self-determination anywhere on the planet today? I’d say not. Let’s help the Kurds make it a reality.
Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Calgary’s NewsTalk 770 and a commentator for Global News.