The following article was originally published in CNN.
Many who follow what is happening in the Middle East will be wondering what’s next for the failed former states of Iraq and Syria in a post-ISIS world.
Here in the arbitrarily-designated Kurdish Region of Iraq, however, this is not the case.
Fresh off a resounding independence referendum victory, the Kurdish people are resolute in moving to secure their rights, having proven themselves bulwarks of freedom — and against terrorism — in a gravely troubled region.
The objective case for Kurdish statehood is strong and unassailable. We Kurds are the indigenous inhabitants of our territories — and have been since ancient times — coexisting with Christians, Yazidis, Turkmen and other minorities among us.
Kurds have our own distinct culture, language and even many indigenous pre-Islamic religious traditions. Notably, there are a number of small Arab states in the region that fail to meet objective prerequisites justifying separate countries, with populations indistinguishable from those in their politically-drawn neighbor states. And yet, with a population numbering 35 million, the Kurds are the largest stateless people on the planet.
Our subjective justifications begin with the fact that we are still manipulated and abused despite our 25 years of semi-autonomy from Baghdad. Our quality of life and economic stability are at the whims of a paralyzed and foreign-influenced central government.
It continually withholds our legally entitled share of the budget, and shares almost none of the international military and financial aid it receives.
Under Baghdad’s thumb we are unable to assert control over major areas of critical policy, from foreign relations to monetary policy, depriving us of much-needed leverage to defeat terror and unleash our economic potential.
Baghdad’s retaliations in the aftermath of our referendum — invasion of our territory, deposing our officials, halting financial transfers, and attempts to shutter our airspace and borders — are a throwback to the era of Saddam Hussein, showing Iraq has not progressed since his fall in 2003.
There’s been a long and inadequately told history of oppression and Kurdish genocides. Saddam orchestrated an ethnic cleansing campaign that featured forced relocations and the slaughter of over 180,000 innocents. Even today, many religious, ethnic, political and sexual minorities of all backgrounds seek refuge from the unchecked oppression perpetrated by Baghdad’s security forces and the Islamist militias that operate in tandem.
Sponsored by Iran, these forces are presently attacking us, and include members of Hezbollah and the infamous Quds Force. Whatever comes after ISIS is likely to be as bad or worse for the Kurdish people and those we harbor.
This is partially why 92.7% of residents of the Kurdistan Region voted “yes” in the independence referendum. And this should not surprise anyone, given regional powers’ conduct toward men, women, and even children of Kurdish extraction.
Following Saddam’s ousting in 2003, the Kurdistan Region moved swiftly to secure its future as an autonomous part of a united Federal Iraq.
We voted en bloc to elect the US-preferred slate, giving this “new Iraq” the best possible chance.
Not a single US soldier was killed in the Kurdistan Region during the entire Iraq War.
Despite sheltering over 2 million refugeemos (more than the EU or any Arab state), we have an enviably effective security apparatus.
Our region held a 600-mile front line against ISIS, yet no significant terror attacks or kidnappings have occurred in the last decade. While fierce combat raged on in Baghdad and Mosul, we welcomed millions of tourists — and they are increasingly returning as ISIS-fueled anxieties subside.
Our progress is the result of deeds, not luck or coincidence. We are proud to continue to attract global private investment and household brands that find the Kurdistan Region a safe bet. Some argue that conditions here are “not ripe” for independence, but many successful nations started from a much worse place. We invite our skeptics to come here as my guest to see and experience the Iraq that could have been when a society repels extremist influences and embraces positive ones.
We Kurds love America. We admire the philosophy that made the US the greatest nation in the world and look to the resilience of her people. We know your story: you resisted a foreign power’s overreach, united your people and established the model for a truly free and prosperous republic.
Looking west, we aspire and prepare to build nothing less than what you have. Our justifications for self-determination rival yours in 1776. And with assertions of independence like Brexit in Europe, we seek only that which Western societies want for their families and future generations.
Officials in the US and elsewhere alleged that our referendum was “ill-timed” and that the vote distracts from defeating ISIS. Yet, only a very small area held by ISIS still bordered our territory at the time, and this area was cleared in recent days. Before even finishing the job against ISIS, the Iraqi forces turned their weapons against us. That’s the real distraction.
Others suggested the referendum would lack “international legitimacy.” From the United Nations Charter to the Montevideo Convention, documents forming the bedrock of international law unequivocally declare that our people have the right to self-determination. These agreements do not state that a people may be denied basic rights if far-away powers feel the timing isn’t right for them.
Did Western support for the Kurds begin with the fight against ISIS and end the moment we asked for our own rights? Does America really choose silence as we face the brunt of Iraq’s forces and Iran’s terror proxies?
For years we endured some of the fiercest skirmishes in the global war on terror and paid a heavy price in this endeavor. We cannot and should not be asked to give an unstable Arab government Kurdish lands liberated at the expense of Kurdish blood. More American dollars and weapons would not have prevented the weak and foreign-influenced Iraqi army from surrendering to a handful of ISIS bandits in pickup trucks. We would have lost far fewer brave servicemen and women if ISIS had not seized those US military assets.
We cannot and will not answer the call to gamble the future of our children and our security by entertaining the dangerously delusional fantasy of a united Iraq. No number of American lives or amount of your tax dollars would have ever made the vision of a serene, civil Iraq a reality. Only the Kurdistan Region has proven to be a stable partner for peace. As deputy commander-in-chief of the Kurdish forces — and whose scars bear witness to the struggle against tyranny — few can attest to this as strongly as I can.
The paths and fates of the Kurdistan Region and what remains of Iraq continue to diverge irreversibly day by day. Neither regional actors like Iran and Turkey, nor global interests, will determine our destiny.
It is in our hands — and ours alone. It’s time for the world to accept this. It’s time for the Kurdish people to begin a formal embrace of the bright, independent future that lies ahead for us.
This article was originally published in CNN.