The people of Kurdistan voted for independence from Iraq. Baghdad retaliated against its rebellious province. Iran and Turkey have responded as well. The U.S. needs to stay out of any new Mideast conflicts.
Iraq’s Kurds suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein’s rule. An American “no-fly” zone effectively made Erbil autonomous in 1991. The Kurdish statelet doesn’t enjoy UN membership, but otherwise acts largely independently.
The Kurds were just another people betrayed by the Versailles settlement to World War I when the British and French divided up the Middle East. There are as many as 45 million Kurds today and they constitute one of the largest people groups without their own nation. They are concentrated in several Middle Eastern nations which increasingly look like failed states.
The Kurdish Regional Government has a bill of particulars against Baghdad—broken promises, constitutional violations, political failures—that makes a plausible case for separation. However, no event precipitated the recent independence vote. Domestic politics likely was a factor.
Unfortunately, Kurdistan’s ability to sustain an independent existence is uncertain at best. The landlocked territory is surrounded by adversaries which control its access to the world. Financially the KRG is dependent on declining oil revenue shipped through other states.
Until now Kurdistan has survived as an autonomous zone because of both the weakness of the Iraqi state and Washington’s informal protection. In contrast, Turkey’s Kurds have suffered under the full weight of the Turkish military.
Iran’s Kurds avoided a similar fate because they are better integrated nationally, though armed resistance occurred even there. In Syria Kurdish forces have carved out an autonomous region in the midst of civil war.
America never paid much attention to Kurds in Iran and Syria. In Turkey, which contains the largest number of Kurds, Washington ignored the government’s brutal military campaign, fought with U.S.-supplied weapons, since Ankara was an ally.
In Iraq support for Kurdish autonomy advanced America’s geopolitical ends, most notably constraining Saddam Hussein’s government. The Kurds remained helpful allies after the U.S. invasion, when the Baghdad government was not in position to reassert authority over Kurdish territory. As the threat from the Islamic State recedes, however, the Abadi government can turn its attention toward the KRG.
Unfortunately, Erbil’s referendum multiplied the dangers. Opposition to Kurdish independence may be the one issue uniting Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi demanded nullification of the “illegal” referendum results. Baghdad closed down air traffic into the autonomous territory, moved to take control of Iraq’s border posts in Kurdish territory, expelled Kurdish forces from the disputed city of Kirkuk, and seized oil fields held by the Kurds.
Turkey, busy waging a war against its Kurdish citizens, conducted military maneuvers along its border with Kurdistan and threatened to close the border and cut the oil pipeline transporting Kurdish oil. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the KRG risked bearing “the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war.”
Iran closed its airspace to KRG flights and banned transportation of refined oil products in and out of Kurdistan. Tehran also conducted military operations along its border with the KRG.
In Syria the Assad government backed away from Kurdish areas early in the civil war, giving them greater space. The Kurds there have created an autonomous region, but they are tied to Turkey’s Kurds and Ankara used its military to constrain the Syrian group’s ambitions. Moreover, if President Bashar al-Assad consolidates power he also may move to curb Kurdish autonomy.
In short, the cause of Kurdish independence risks sparking multiple conflicts.
Washington will face pressure to choose sides. Kurds fought Hussein, gave refuge to religious minorities, battled the Islamic State, and aided U.S. geopolitical objectives. However, the Trump administration strongly opposed the “provocative” independence referendum.
Some analysts urged Washington to prevent or at least moderate Kurdish conflict with Ankara and Baghdad. However, if the U.S. could stabilize the region, it already would have done so.
The U.S. cannot easily threaten Iraq, having invested so much to stabilize the country, and Turkey, which spent decades brutally suppressing Kurdish separatism. Obviously, negotiation among the interested parties would be better than confrontation and conflict. However, Kurds have been waiting a long time for independence and Iraq’s neighbors have no reason to accept an independent Kurdistan.
Kurds deserve their own country. Unfortunately, they live in a dangerous region, surrounded by opponents of their national ambitions. They deserve Americans’ best wishes. But Washington should stay out of any conflicts that result.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
Kurdistan fans Mideast flames with independence vote – OCRegister}