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America Should Stand Up for Kurdish Independence

By  |  September 25, 2017, 10:50am  |  @JerryDunleavy


While America spent the weekend hotly debating the NFL & the National Anthem — and as the world inched closer to possible war in North Korea and as millions of Puerto Ricans suffered the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria — a small speck of land in the Middle East was about to send shockwaves through the international system. Today — September 25, 2017 — the Kurds of Iraq will likely overwhelmingly vote for their independence in the referendum being held in Iraqi Kurdistan. This independence is well deserved. The Kurdish homeland in the Middle East dates back centuries — but the Kurds themselves find themselves split asunder & without a nation. As the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation to call its own, the Kurds have faced decades of severe persecution in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, & Syria. Aided by a No-Fly Zone instituted by the United States following the First Gulf War, the Kurds in Iraq were able to establish a semi-autonomous territory in Northern Iraq and to create the current Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The Kurds were strong allies in the Second Gulf War as they helped topple Saddam Hussein’s regime, leading to even greater autonomy for themselves. And Iraqi Kurdistan was the only area of relative peace during the terror-fueled raging Iraqi insurgency & sectarian civil war that followed. Following the invasion of Iraq by ISIS in 2014, the Kurds demonstrated themselves to be the most dependable fighting force in-country, halting the sweeping gains of ISIS and giving the Iraqi government – and indeed the world – the breathing room to regroup and fight back. Independence has long been the desired goal of Kurds in the region, and the Kurds positioned themselves well as they battled ISIS, took back large swaths of territory from the terrorist organization, and consolidated these gains. But the Iraqi government – based in Baghdad and dominated by Shiite parties – is still the ultimate arbiter of power in Iraq, stifling Kurdistan’s economy, fighting with it over oil, limiting its armaments, and generally squeezing Kurdish autonomy. After decades of being ruled by Baghdad, the Kurds of Iraq have had enough.

The Kurds represent the largest ethnic group in the world without its own state. There are roughly 35 million Kurds worldwide, with nearly 30 million of them living within the bounds of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, & Iran. Within the Middle East, the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group, following the well-known ethnic groups of Arabs, Persians, & Turks – all of whom have their own states. The Kurdish people have a cohesive identity spanning centuries — and their overarching goal is the establishment of an official homeland. This begins with today’s historic vote in Iraqi Kurdistan calling for independence – a vote that America should support.

The history of the Kurdish people in the 20th & 21st centuries is a story of oppression. Promises of a homeland in the wake of the World Wars proved to be false, and the Kurds found themselves separated by borders. The Kurds of Iraq were brutally oppressed by the Saddam Hussein regime, most notoriously through the Al-Anflal Campaign (the commission of genocide by Hussein against the tens of thousands of Kurds in the wake of the Iran-Iraq War). When the Kurds tried to rise up against Saddam Hussein in 1991 in the wake of the First Gulf War (at the tacit encouragement of the United States, mind you) this rebellion was put down in brutal fashion as the United States & the world stood by and let it happen. Following this, the U.S. instituted a No-Fly Zone in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds from further oppression in the wake of that war. This allowed the Kurds to establish a semi-autonomous self-governed region, representing the first real semblance of independence the Kurds have had. It took the Second Gulf War in 2003 to liberate the Kurds from Hussein’s regime entirely.

It must be emphasized that the Kurds have been absolutely critical in the fight against ISIS. When ISIS invaded Iraq in 2014, US-trained & US-equipped Iraqi forces fled by the thousands, abandoning bases, humvees, supplies, heavy artillery, & weaponry – all of which went on to be used by ISIS to devastating effect. But where the Iraqi military fled, a vastly under-supplied & in many instances out-gunned Kurdish Peshmerga force stood firm, stopping the spread of ISIS into Kurdish territory, in many cases turning back the terrorist group’s march, and in time liberating large swaths of territory within the Kurdish sphere of influence. The only reason that strategic cities like Kirkuk and strategic oil fields like of Baji didn’t fall to ISIS — and the only reason why attempted genocides against the Christians & Yazidis of Iraq were not fully successful — was thanks to the Kurds. The battlefield successes against ISIS in 2016 & 2017 would not have been remotely possible without the massive sacrifices of the Kurds in 2014 & 2015 & all the way through today. And an independent Kurdistan would be an even more effective ally in the fight against ISIS & related terror groups.

The Kurds have accepted over 1.4 million refugees during the war with ISIS – including Muslims of all sects, Christians, Yazidis, & Jews. Religious tolerance (especially by Middle Eastern standards) is widespread inside Kurdish-controlled areas: Kurdistan’s small Jewish community has been allowed to practice their faith and Christians & Yazidis that saw their cities invaded by ISIS were able to flee to Kurdish regions that have protected them and that have taken back lots of their territory from the terrorist organization. Beyond embracing different religions in ways almost unheard of in the region, the Kurds also embrace impressive levels of gender equality as well – Kurdish women enjoy incomparably greater freedom, autonomy, & equality in Iraqi Kurdistan than in the rest of Iraq.

The Kurds would be a bulwark in the heart of the Middle East against all kinds of radicalism. The Kurds generally place their unique ethnic identity (along with their unique language & society) above any religious extremism – secularism is the heart of the Middle East is a lofty goal, but it is one that the Kurds have made great strides toward. Militant Islam – of either the Sunni or Shiite persuasion – has limited support among the Kurds. Where much of the current struggle on the battlefield against ISIS seemed like a battle between varying strains of religiously-motivated groups (radical Sunni Muslims like Jahbat al-Nusrah & the Islamic State on one side versus Iranian-backed Shia Muslim militias on the other), the Kurds are motivated by a unique heritage and a desire for democratic rule & independence. A stable & democratic Kurdish nation would be a great improvement over the civil wars & religious extremism that currently dominate Kurdistan’s surrounding neighborhood.

The Kurds would be able to use their independence to become more effective militarily and stronger economically. Currently, much of Kurdistan’s economic & military capabilities rely on decisions made by a Shiite-led (and Iranian-influenced) central government in Baghdad. Its shares of Iraqi oil revenue must come through Baghdad first. Its opportunities to sell oil to the E.U. and elsewhere are made vastly more difficult. Its ability to buy necessary weaponry is complicated & delayed. And so Kurdish independence would liberate their economy and allow for their self-defense – which is why the surrounding hostile nations oppose this independence.

It must be emphasized that Kurdish aspirations for independence are opposed by the United States, by the United Nations, and by nearly every other nation. It is very nearly Kurdistan Against The World. In fact, only the state of Israel supports the Kurdish bid – something that Saladin would approve — perhaps because Israel understands better than any other nation what it means to be a historically oppressed group surrounded by enemies. And surrounded by enemies the Kurds indeed are – the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is most strongly opposed by the governments in Baghdad, Ankara, Tehran, & Damascus (Iraq, Turkey, Iran, & Syria) due to the potential regional fallout stemming from the large Kurdish populations residing in those countries. Indeed, recriminations against the Kurds have already begun – the government of Iraq has made it clear that it will punish Kurdistan’s economy if (when!) it goes through with the referendum. And the governments of Turkey & Iran are threatening the Kurds with severe retaliation – including possible military intervention. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — the wannabe dictator of Turkey — sees the Kurds as a threat to his hold on power, and has been openly threatening them with economic devastation & invasion. That’s right – our friends in Kurdistan might see their independence referendum celebrations almost immediately consumed by war with neighbors looking to bring a swift end to this bid for freedom. The Kurds are obviously feeling the pressure from the verbal onslaughts & the military exercises being conducted on their periphery, but the vote is happening anyway. Will the United States really cede our foreign policy to the mullahs in Iran and the strongman in Turkey and the corrupt government of Iraq? Will the United States really stand by and let this happen to the Kurds – to a nation that has fought alongside us against jihadists for years & years?

The Gospel of Matthew states that “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Over the decades, the world has gotten to know the Kurdish people – and their fruits. They indeed have their flaws – political dysfunction, an imperfect record on the administration of territory that has come into their possession, big questions about the future status of religious & ethnic minorities within the state, incomplete political equality amongst the population, corruption that needs to be dealt with, and so on. But there is an incredible amount to be admired in the Kurds. They’ve been stalwart in defense of their homeland. Brave in the face of threats & violence from Great Powers. Sacrificial in their struggle against Saddam, against al-Qaeda, and against ISIS. Charitable in their taking in of hundreds of thousands of refugees of every creed — charity all the more impressive given Kurdistan’s relative poverty. And trustworthy, as their Peshmerga have served honorably side-by-side next to American & coalition forces against the Islamic State.

For all these reasons, the Kurdish independence movement is absolutely worthy of our support: it would grant a persecuted ethnic minority its own nation-state and would would result in a reliable pro-Western ally in the heart of the Middle East. Kurdistan is a bit of a miracle – landlocked, isolated, resource-scarce, & persecuted – but it has been able to establish a semi-autonomous region in Iraq where fleeing refugees & religious minorities have been kept safe and where warriors have proven their mettle. The vote for Kurdish independence will be good for the Kurds – and indeed good for the world, too.

For the closing argument, I will leave you with an excerpt from a Washington Post op-ed by Qubad Talabani, the Deputy Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (please read the entire piece):

“Yes, we have a choice. We can either go ahead with our symbolic vote, which has the potential to generate serious backlash from the countries that oppose it, or we can accept a proposed set of commitments from our allies, the most powerful nations in the world, in return for postponing the referendum. As it happens, though, we Kurds have a long and vivid memory of the many betrayals our people have suffered throughout history. For this reason, it is not at all clear to us that postponement is in our nation’s best interest… And we have seriously weighed the risks of holding a referendum. Who, indeed, could be more aware of them than us?… Rather than trying to convince us not to leave Iraq, the world should have tried harder to ask Iraq to convince us to stay… Yes, Kurdistan’s democracy is imperfect; our governance, institutions and political leadership have their flaws. But we are committed to economic prosperity, to transparency and accountability, and, above all, to the safety and protection of our citizens. We have far more of the building blocks for new institutions in place than many other new nations… While our people have a range of views about the referendum and the best path forward, in the heart of every Kurd we are already independent. We are already a nation. We did not hesitate to join the international coalition and the Iraqi forces that set out to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State. Nor did we hesitate before that to fight al-Qaeda, or before that, Saddam Hussein. But we are not mercenaries, paid to fight wars. Our lives are on the line, and we, too, have our strategic and national interests. We didn’t think twice about opening our doors to those displaced by conflict, despite our own economic problems… Despite all this, rather than recognizing or rewarding us, other nations have joined forces to oppose our right to self-determination. Where were you when we were being slaughtered, attacked with chemical weapons and buried in mass graves in 1988? How long did it take you to respond to our pleas when we fled to the mountains after Hussein crushed our uprising in 1991? Every Kurd around the world shook with fear and indignation at the predicament of our brothers and sisters on the top of Mount Sinjar in 2014. The wounds of past persecution and genocide are fresh in our hearts and minds… It is time for our international partners to seriously chart out a path that resolves the Kurdish question in Iraq and gives our people what you already enjoy, and what we deserve: a country of our own.”

They say that timing is everything – but there will never be a “good time” for the emergence of a new country in the heart of the Middle East. The Kurds could’ve broken away during the civil war that raged in Iraq from 2004—2007, but they didn’t. The Kurds could’ve broken away in the chaos that ensued when ISIS swept across Iraq in 2014 & 2015, but they didn’t. They waited until order had been largely restored and until ISIS had been mostly beaten back. They waited until they’d already taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees. And frankly — as the tens of millions of Kurds around the world would surely agree — they’ve waited long enough. If not now, then when?

What will follow this independence referendum will not be easy – the Kurds will face untold challenges in the coming weeks, months, & years — and they will need our help. So it is time for the United States to stop using the Kurds when we need them and then ignoring them when they need us. In foreign affairs, a country should defend its interests but should also reward its allies, not abandon them in their time of need. We left the Kurds to flee into the mountains after the First Gulf War and to suffer under Saddam Hussein’s cruelty for a decade more. They find themselves now surrounded by enemies that would like nothing more than to quickly snuff out even the faintest flicker of freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan. We should not – cannot – must not let that happen.

As they say in Kurdish, “Bale” Kurdistan! “Yes!” to a free & independent Kurdish nation.