Brian M Downing
The people of the Kurdish region in northeastern Iraq voted on independence this Monday. Turnout was high and authorities report a 92% yes vote. The Kurdish government will decide whether to formally declare independence or remain an autonomous part of Iraq – a highly autonomous part.
The Kurds are a large and distinct people who by longstanding international principles have the right to self-determination. That principle was clear at the Versailles conference after World War One but realpolitik triumphed over it. Something like that is recurring today as the Kurdish government ponders its next move.
Kurdish fighters were critical in halting and driving back the 2014 offensive which saw Iraqi troops flee and Mosul fall. The peshmerga initially also gave up ground, then dug in and fought with remarkable resolve. ISIL was stopped before the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Kurdish forces retook Sinjar, severing lines of communication between ISIL units in Syria and Iraq, and established blocking positions around Mosul, allowing Iraqi special forces to retake the city.
The world respected the stalwart Kurds, all the more so after Syrian Kurds defeated ISIL at Kobane and along the approaches to Raqqa. Western publics hailed the grit of Kurdish women who hefted Kalashnikovs in the fight. The world’s respect has nonetheless not translated into support for independence. Israel is the only significant actor to support Kurdish independence.
Israel has long backed the Kurds. When Iraq posed a threat, aid and advisors went to northern Iraq to tie down Iraqi troops. When relations with Iran deteriorated in the nineties, Israel aided Kurdish guerrillas in northwestern Iran. The Kurdish Free Life Party (PJAK) now wages a low-level insurgency against Tehran. As Israeli-American hostility to Iran escalates, support to PJAK may grow. And of course Kurdistan would be an important base.
The United States, despite Israel’s position, does not want Kurdish independence. The US holds fast to the idea of a unified Iraq, even though it has done so much to fragment it. The US may see independence bringing cooperation among Iran, Iraq, and Turkey that will interfere with operations against Iran and further increase Tehran’s influence in Baghdad.
Turkey and Iran adamantly oppose independence as it will encourage likeminded movements in their own Kurdish regions, where low-level insurgencies have been underway for decades, albeit intermittently. Economic strangulation looms. Iran has reinforced troops near the frontier. Turkey has done the same and warned of closing down the pipeline connecting Kurdistan’s oil with world markets. The only alternatives are south to Iraq and east to Iran. Neither is presently viable.
No oil exports, no Kurdistan.
A unified Kurdish region would be a strategic boon for Israel which would welcome it as a strong partner against Iran and Sunni forces, whether of the ISIL or Saudi variety. It would of course be a nightmare for Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It’s unlikely to come about, though.
The Kurds are far from a homogeneous people. They do not all speak the same language, literally or figuratively. They are deeply divided across tribal and political lines. Turkish Kurds, for example, embrace Marxist-Leninist beliefs. Some Syrian Kurds support the Assad government and see the rebels as dupes of Turkey. Kurdistan’s armed forces are directed by rival political parties. It’s as though the American army were commanded by the Republicans, the navy by the Democrats.
A Greater Kurdistan nonetheless causes concern in Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran. Most of the Iraqi army is too corrupt and inept to intimidate Kurdistan, and Iraqi special forces are too small and worn down to face the peshmerga. The Kurds would maul them.
In coming weeks though, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey may bring concerted and daunting pressure on Erbil. They are already underscoring their opposition to independence by positioning troops along borders with Kurdistan. What Iraq cannot do alone, it can do in conjunction with Iran and Turkey.
The people and government of Kurdistan must ask what real benefits, if any, independence will bring that today’s autonomy does not already have.
Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.