For nearly a century, any map of the world has had to be revised frequently as nations were either conquered, split up, or newly created. The key question in each case was whether the border shifting was done peacefully and by consensus.
Now that question must once again be asked as the 5 million ethnic Kurds in largely Arab Iraq move closer to a vote on independence.
A peaceful secession of Iraqi Kurdistan would be in marked contrast to the extreme violence employed by the jihadist group Islamic State (previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which proclaimed a Muslim caliphate last month. And it would stand out against the recurring violence used by Hamas in Gaza to gain a Palestinian state.
The Kurds have been a patient people in their long desire for independence. After World War I, they were denied a homeland by European powers who carved up the Middle East. With each new conflict thrust upon them in their mountainous areas, they have steadily taken steps to win more autonomy while also trying to show they can run a secular, peaceful democracy. This has earned them much respect.
Their caution has been necessary because the entire population of some 25 million Kurds is spread across four countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey – where they are minorities. Secession of Kurds in even one country would be difficult enough.
Yet the rapid advance of the Islamic State group in the Sunni areas of Iraq has created an opportunity for a Kurdish state.
The Islamic State’s advances against the fleeing Iraqi Army left behind several critical conditions for the Kurds. Their security forces, known as peshmerga, were forced to defend the city of Kirkuk, which they consider their “Jerusalem.” The city’s rich oil reserves could potentially provide wealth for an independent state. And the new territory under Islamic State’s control also cut off the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq.
All this, plus the political turmoil in Iraq over creating a government not dominated by Shiites, provides an opening for Kurds to seek a referendum on independence, perhaps starting first in Kirkuk.
Other states are lining up to either support or oppose this move. Iran and the United States are against the move as they prefer a unified Iraq. Turkey and Israel are for it, as they could buy Kurdish oil. In addition, the three main factions of Kurds are divided over the extent of independence.
Kurds must remain true to their past caution by ensuring a peaceful move toward secession. Any action that would precipitate war could derail their dreams and possibly create another major conflict. One fallback would be to achieve greater autonomy with guaranteed Kurdish control over Kirkuk and its oil exports.
Revising the world map yet again must not be done with violence.