‘No Friends but the Mountains:’ Kurds Hold Independence Referendum Despite Opposition

In the mountainous border regions of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria that make up Kurdistan, there is an old adage that the Kurds have adopted as a sort of national motto: “No Friends but the Mountains.” This is proving itself to be true as troops from neighboring countries gather on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan and the leaders of these countries threaten retaliation for a recently held independence referendum.

“What day is more pleasant, greater and more sacred than the day in which one declares the victory of the will of one’s nation to determine their fate freely?” said Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, announcing the results of an independence referendum in Northern Iraq. Over three million voted in the referendum, with 91.83% voting for independence from Iraq. The Election Commission estimates that the referendum had a 72 percent turn-out. Although the referendum is non-binding, it gives President Barzani a significant mandate to pursue independence negotiations with the Iraqi government more forcefully.

Following the news, the Iraqi and Turkish armies held joint military maneuvers along the Kurdish border. Iran followed suit and held military exercises along its border with Kurdistan. Iraqi Prime-Minister Haider al-Abadi has threatened to impose a complete air embargo on Kurdistan if the Kurdish government does not hand over the airports within it’s territory. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called the referendum ‘treachery’ and told the Kurds to ‘give up or go hungry,’ threatening to close the border between Turkey and Kurdistan.

Even the United States, a long-standing ally of the Kurds, has expressed it’s disappointment in the referendum.

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are an ethnic group numbering over 30 million people whose ancestral homeland comprises the mountainous areas of Northern Iraq, Southeastern Turkey, Northern Syria and Northwestern Iran. They are estimated to be the largest stateless people in the world and the independence referendum marks an important stage in the long-held dream of an independent Kurdish nation. In each of these countries, they have faced varying degrees of persecution. Until 1991, Turkey worked to erase the Kurdish language and culture from Turkey- even banning the term, ‘Kurd’. Turkey is currently engaged in a decades-long war in Southeastern Turkey against the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group. In Iraq, the Kurds were victims of genocide by the Saddam Hussein regime. Following the Persian Gulf War and the establishment by the United States of a no-fly zone over Kurdistan, the Kurds began to enjoy greater autonomy, holding elections and creating their own military.

The Kurds in Northern Iraq have emerged as one of the United States most effective allies in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. In light of their participation in the war against the so-called Islamic State, the Kurds believe that they have earned the right to declare independence.

Even without support from the United States and with hostile troops massing at their border, it is not likely that the Kurds will give up their aspirations for an independent Kurdish nation. “I want to die in the shadow of the flag of an independent Kurdistan”, Barzani says.

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