Lately,the news from Iraq has seemed very bleak, with the fanatics from the Islamic State (which has nothing to do with Islam, the Religion of Peace) poised to take over the country almost unopposed, but there is at least on group of people who have successfully managed to fight off the IS and is now getting help from the United States, the Kurds. There is even some chance that the Kurds will managed to finally get a state of their own, even though this is opposed by all the actors in the region.
The Kurds deserve their own state far more than the Palestinians. Unlike the Palestinians, they are a real nation with a language and culture of their own. They have lived in their homeland since at least the time of Alexander the Great and probably for centuries before. The Kurds have contributed their share of great people, including the Muslim warlord Saladin. What more do they need to get their own state?
With Cuba and North Korea dominating the headlines, Americans may have missed the good news from a corner of the world that has provided very little: Iraq. Kurdish peshmerga fighters have inflicted a series of defeats on Islamic State forces, freeing a broad swath of northern Iraq from the jihadists’ control.
These battlefield victories underline an equally striking change in U.S. policy: Starting in 2015, the U.S. military will be training three brigades of peshmerga and spending more than $350 million equipping them for battle with the fanatics tearing Iraq apart. While the Kurds have been semi-independent since 1991, with their own government, militias and foreign policy, this is the biggest step yet toward Washington allowing them to have a state of their own.
To understand the significance, recall that for the almost the entire Barack Obama presidency, the Kurds and the U.S. have been at odds. In Obama’s first term, the White House asked the highest-ranking Kurd in Iraq’s government, President Jalal Talabani, to resign his post in favor of Iyad Allawi, the secular Arab whose party won the most parliamentary seats in the 2010 election. (Talabani declined.) Obama’s diplomats consistently acceded to the sensitivities of Iraq’s Shiite-led government and refused to send promised equipment and weapons directly to Kurdish fighters. When the Kurds tried to fend for themselves by selling oil on the international market, U.S. diplomats warned oil companies not to purchase it.
The Kurds happen to be the most pro-American faction in Iraq, so of course Obama didn’t care for them. Smart diplomacy is helping your enemies while slamming your friends.
But then came the Islamic State. After Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, fell in June to jihadists using vehicles and weapons the U.S. had provided to Iraq’s army, Obama realized that the Kurds are America’s only competent friends left in Iraq. Indeed, last week Kurdish forces finally broke the Islamic State’s siege of Sinjar near the Syrian border.
This dependence on the Kurds to stop the jihadists complicates U.S. foreign policy tremendously. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have supported a “one Iraq” policy that commits the U.S. to discouraging Iraq’s Kurds from declaring themselves an independent country. Militarily, this meant the U.S. was committed to standing up a national Iraqi Army, not a regional militia that could challenge Baghdad’s monopoly of power.
“The unity of Iraq is absolutely essential both for longstanding U.S. policy and for regional stability; for American credibility and predictability with other partners; and for defeating IS,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq between 2010 and 2012 told me last week. Current U.S. officials working on the Iraq file echo this view. In short, Washington cannot be perceived by Iraq’s neighbors to be encouraging the dissolution of the country. For one thing, it could very well spur Turkey and the Persian Gulf States to defect from the international campaign against IS.
To understand why an independent Kurdistan is a problem, you have to look at a map of the region where the Kurds live.
As you can see, the Kurdish population not only lives in the northern part of Iraq and western Iran, but they also make up a considerable part of the population of eastern Turkey. After the Ottoman Empire was overthrown in 1922, the secular Republic of Turkey was formed by Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk wanted to bring Turkey into the modern age so his government deemphasized the role of Islam and promoted Turkish nationalism and every Turkish leader since Ataturk has insisted that Turkey be ethnically homogenous. The Greek population of Asia Minor which has been living there since before the time of Christ was expelled in the 1920s. The Kurds have been harshly persecuted by various Turkish administrations. There language and culture has been outlawed and there identity taken away. According to the Turkish government there are no Kurds in Turkey. Those people are Eastern Turks or Mountain Turks. Naturally, the Kurds in Turkey have not taken kindly to this treatment and there have been several revolts each brutally suppressed. The Turks have eased up on human rights violations against the Kurds in recent years, in order to be considered for acceptance into the EU, but the Kurds are still treated poorly. The Turks fear that an independent Kurdistan in neighboring Iraq will encourage the Mountain Turks to rebel once again, or at least demand to be part of the new state.
A new state may happen, whatever the Turks, and others might wish.
Yet the question of a Kurdish state is getting harder to avoid. In July, Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region, came out in support of a referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq. The month before, Kurdish fighters had taken up posts abandoned by the Iraqi army in Kirkuk, a strategic city at the heart of disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdish region.
Even though Kurdistan is landlocked, it’s no longer such a stretch to imagine it being independent. Kurdish customs officials already stamp your passport at its airports. The Kurds have their diplomats and lobbyists in foreign capitals. And now, thanks to an oil deal reached early this month with Baghdad, they have staved off financial collapse and gotten Baghdad to agree to pay the salaries of their Peshmerga fighters. Over the summer Israel’s prime minister,Benjamin Netanyahu, came out for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
The one thing the Kurds do not have, however, is a modern army. The peshmerga own some tanks, some rifles and have in the past worked very closely with American special-operations forces in Iraq. But they are still organized like a militia, with various commanders more loyal to local Kurdish political leaders than to the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG. Between 1994 and 1997, forces loyal to the two major Kurdish parties fought one another in a civil war.
On a visit to Washington last month, Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, told reporters that his government was now beginning the process of creating a centralized Kurdish army. And this is where U.S. training of three Kurdish brigades could make a major difference. If the peshmerga transforms from a localized guerilla militia into a modern army, then one of the remaining pieces necessary for Kurdish independence will fall into place.
For now, the Kurds are partners in helping to destroy the makeshift caliphate that has effectively erased the border between Syria and Iraq. For this the world owes them a debt of gratitude. But by training and equipping a modern Kurdish army to achieve this task, Obama may find that he is helping destroy Iraq in order to save it.
Perhaps “Iraq” is not worth saving. Like many other states formed in the aftermath of decolonization, Iraq doesn’t really correspond to any real nation. The region of Mesopotamia is composed of many ethnic groups and religions and it may be that only a dictator like Saddam Hussein could possibly hold it together. It might be wise to partition Iraq or to create some loose confederation on the model of a country like Switzerland. I think that the Kurds, at least, should be independent. They are already their own nation and the Kurdish region of Iraq has already adopted many of the attributes of a sovereign state. If the Turks don’t like it, well they haven’t exactly acted as our allies lately. I think a free Kurdistan should be American policy.
- The Crusade Is for Self-determination: (brothersjuddblog.com)
- Kurds a step closer to getting state of their own (stripes.com)
- U.S. has pulled Iraqi Kurdish parties from terrorist list (worldbulletin.net)
- Kurdish Official Calls For Power Decentralization In Iraq (rferl.org)