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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
If the fighting in Iraq and Syria ever draws to a close, the region will someday have to address this perennial question - what about the Kurds? The Kurds have no country of their own. They're spread out over Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. In September, Iraqi Kurds who run their own autonomous region in the north of the country have scheduled an independence referendum. Joost Hiltermann watches the Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group and joins us now. Welcome to the program.
JOOST HILTERMANN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Iraqi Kurdistan has had a referendum before. They've voted for independence before. What, if anything, could be different this time?
HILTERMANN: Nothing will be different in terms of the outcome of the vote. It is clear that the Kurds, wherever they may be, in their hearts want to be independent. So Mr. Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region and the head of one of the parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, has called for a referendum and has scheduled it for September 25 of this year. This is indeed the second such time that a referendum will be held. In the first time, in 2005, the outcome was unanimously in favor of independence.
This time is hardly going to be different. The importance of the referendum is not that it's being held again because clearly we know the outcome, but that it would give some ammunition to Mr. Barzani when he goes to Baghdad actually negotiate the terms of independence. It still has to be negotiated between the Kurdistan region and Baghdad.
SIEGEL: It would seem that he would have other leverage that he could bring to Baghdad, which would be to say, hey, our - Peshmerga is the Kurdish militia - we've been doing a lot of the fighting in Iraq. And we've been pushing ISIS out. Does that give him any greater strength in arguing for whether it's deeper autonomy or legitimate independence?
HILTERMANN: Well, not really with Baghdad because Baghdad will answer that actually most of the fighting has been done by the Iraqi army and by the Shia militias that are technically under Baghdad's control but are in many ways directed by Iran. So if it comes to the Kurds asking for international help, for sure, the United States and European countries that are part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, they will say, yeah, well, you've deserved it. But they're not the ones who decide.
SIEGEL: But I hear you saying regardless of what the Kurds may deserve or may think they deserve, you wouldn't bet on independence anytime soon.
HILTERMANN: That's correct.
SIEGEL: What's the role of the Syrian Kurds been in the fight against ISIS there?
HILTERMANN: Well, the same thing there, but a different party, Kurdish party, has been involved. In fact, there it's the affiliate of the PKK, the Kurdish party in Turkey, which to the United States officially is a terrorist organization. All the same, the United States has been supporting the Syrian affiliate. And they have fought very well against ISIS and pushed back the group in many places and, in the process, gained a lot of territory, which they would like to see turn into some kind of special arrangement as well for the Kurds there.
SIEGEL: The biggest Kurdish population is in Turkey, where fighting between the Turkish army and the militant Kurdish group, the PKK, resumed a couple of years ago. What's happening in southeastern Turkey where so many Kurds live?
HILTERMANN: Well, that is the only - Turkey is the only country where there has been an active fight between the central government and the Kurds in the past few years. And there has been major devastation. So the situation there doesn't look good for the PKK in that sense. But on the other hand, it has gained ground in northern Syria and in northern Iraq, which it's using as strategic depth against its principal enemy, Turkey. And in fact, there is a real risk that the fighting will continue to spill over from Turkey into northern Syria and northern Iraq when Turkish troops are present and the PKK is present in both countries.
SIEGEL: As you've said, certainly in Iraq there's no question about what Kurds prefer. They like the idea of an independent state. And they even - as part of Iraq, they fly their own flag and have great autonomy. Can you explain how it is that for all of these decades, if not centuries, the Kurds have been dealt out of a state? Is it just bad luck? Is it geography? Is it internal divisions? Why has it been so elusive for them?
HILTERMANN: Well, it's a legacy of the colonial manipulations that followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Britain promised a - the Kurds a state, but it was actually much smaller and located in what is today Turkey. But that promise was reneged upon by Britain, and ever since the Kurds have been divided over four nations - Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. And these countries have banded together against the Kurds because none of them want to see the Kurds independent. And that has worked until today.
The only difference today is that the Iraqi government is extremely weak. Syria is in turmoil. And so it's only Turkey and Iran that stand between the Kurds and independence. I think it's very doubtful that as long as these two states are there that the Kurds will be able to push for independence because in the end, it will affect the situation in their own countries. They don't want their own countries to be split.
SIEGEL: Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. Thanks for talking with us today.
HILTERMANN: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.