The battle of Kirkuk as a lesson on ‘self determination’

When Iraqi forces swept into the Kurdish-held city Oct. 16, they revealed the internal divisions among Kurds, and the challenges for many secession movements.

A member of Iraqi federal forces holds the Kurdish flag upside down after Iraq's troops seized Kurdish positions in Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 16.

When Woodrow Wilson declared nearly a century ago that any group of people are entitled to “self determination,” he was not very clear on the meaning of “self,” or what is the essential identity needed to bind a nation. That is still the case in two of the world’s most tension-filled attempts at secession: Kurdistan in Iraq and Catalonia in Spain. After the two regions held contentious votes on independence in the past few weeks, the differences within each region remain almost as large as those with the mother country that opposes a breakup.

The Kurds provide a good example of the need for a people to look beyond a physical or cultural identity in trying to form a new country. As an ethnic minority spread across several Middle East countries, the Kurds have long sought a homeland. They were denied one by the artificial borders drawn for the region by the British and French after World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Yet despite their long-suffering hope, the Kurds still have not resolved their internal divisions over principles of governance, relations with neighboring peoples, or the use of violence. Those differences were on clear display Oct. 16 when Iraqi forces swiftly took back the city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds had controlled since 2014 with the advance of Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq. One Kurdish faction, called the KDP, fought the Iraqi forces while another, known as the PUK, decided not to resist. The KDP even accused the PUK of assisting the invasion.

It did not help, of course, that the United States and many other countries oppose the Kurdish drive for independence. The defeat of ISIS and support for Iraq’s fragile government remain the world’s top priorities. And even though Iraqi Kurdistan voted overwhelmingly for independence on Sept. 25, its people have not shown enough unity to earn backing for statehood.

In Catalonia, the Oct. 1 referendum on independence also exposed divisions over governance and tactics. Only 43 percent of people in Catalonia cast ballots in the vote, hardly a high enough threshold to justify splitting up Spain and sending the European Union into a crisis over micronationalism. In recent days, Barcelona has seen both pro- and anti-secession protests. Polls indicate a preference only for greater autonomy, not a new country.

To form a new country requires a clear “we,” one not derived simply from resentment toward others but based on shared values and common social goals. National identity relies on people to show humility and respect toward one another. When French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville visited the US a few decades after its independence, he noted that America’s greatness lies “in her ability to repair her faults.”

Issues of sovereignty are critical in many places, from Scotland to Cameroon. But so is the need for a people to demonstrate harmonious self-governance before seeking the “self-determination” of independence.

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