Kurdistan After the Independence Referendum: Trump Must Act

The bottom line is that, for both moral and practical reasons, the United States simply cannot allow Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran to crush the Kurds. And even if the three partitioning countries succeed, they should recognize that Kurdish aspirations will continue to surface in the future, perhaps with even greater vigor; Kurdish independence can perhaps be delayed but not avoided. In the meantime, POTUS must speak out and, even more importantly, act.

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By Paweł Piotr Styrna | October 24, 2017

A Syrian Kurd celebrates the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum at a rally in Qamishli

In the September 25 independence referendum, the Kurdish people have spoken as 93 percent voted for statehood.

Not surprisingly, Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran have refused to recognize the results and are actively working to snuff out Kurdish aspirations.

The reaction from Washington, meanwhile, has been that of passivity and discouragement.

However, the significance of the Kurdish independence referendum lies in the fact that it is a test, a test that the American foreign policy establishment is, so far, failing.

Following the referendum, the Arab government in Baghdad – which failed to protect the Kurds in the face of the ISIS onslaught, abandoning them to their own devices – demanded that the Kurdish Regional Government nullify the results of the vote and cancelled all flights to Kurdistan.

Then, Baghdad sent troops and Shiite militias towards the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk to intimidate the Kurds. More recently, the Iraqi military and Tehran-supported Shiite militias (so much for the “support a unified Iraq to counter Iran” argument) have attacked the Peshmerga and pushed them out of Kirkuk and other contested border areas that the Kurds captured while helping Iraq in the fight against ISIS.

If only the Iraqis had been as tenacious and focused against ISIS, as they are against the Kurds!

According to Kurdish sources, the Shiite militiamen have been beheading captured Peshmerga fighters in Kirkuk. Regardless of the veracity of such accusations, the specter of the Kurds once again falling victim to ethnic cleansing is real.

Quite predictably, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran are drawing closer – apparently even contemplating a military alliance – to quash Kurdish independence.

The Kurds are thus facing a situation that the Israelis faced in 1948, when their Arab neighbors attempted to destroy their newly-independent state, or the Poles throughout the nineteenth century, when the three partitioning powers (Russia, Prussia, and Austria) collaborated to suppress any Polish attempts to regain independence.

In fact, analyst Jordan Schachtel aptly referred to the post-referendum situation as Trump’s “1948 moment.” According to Schachtel: “President Trump should follow in the footsteps of former President Harry Truman, who ignored the pleas of his Arabist bureaucratic advisers and recognized the modern state of Israel immediately after its declaration of independence.”

In any event, if Trump indeed spoke out in favor of Kurdish aspirations, it is certain that Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad would think twice before trying to tighten the noose around the Kurds’ necks.

Unfortunately, the President has remained silent.

Instead, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, stated that “the vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.” The White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, declared that “we hope for a unified Iraq to annihilate ISIS, and certainly a unified Iraq to push back on Iran.”

While the President is by no means averse to questioning old policies that have long ceased to work, it is likely that many of his advisers have warned him against rocking the boat by displeasing Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.

For decades, the mantra of the State Department has been “stability” and status quo above everything else.

Similarly, the inside-the-Beltway foreign policy establishment has long prioritized placating Turkey – even if that meant refusing to recognize the Armenian Genocide, for instance – and frowned upon border changes. Many are also influenced by globalism, and therefore to nationalism, a mentality which leads them to view calls for national self-determination through the prism of the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia along its ethno-religious seams. To all of this, one must also add old-fashioned, prosaic, inside-the-box intellectual laziness.

Sometimes, however, thinking outside the box and geopolitical change are necessary.

Rather than clinging to the corpse of an old policy – a “united” Iraq, which is itself more fiction than reality – the U.S. should offer to mediate by bringing the Iraqis and the Kurds to the negotiating table to delineate a border between Iraq and Kurdistan. The goal should be to prevent border disputes between Baghdad and Erbil from leading to a bloody armed clash.

Turkey, of course, looms large as one of the top reasons why Washington is reluctant to recognize Kurdistan.

Ankara’s opposition to Kurdish independence is understandable: almost half of the Kurds in the Middle East inhabit southeastern Turkey, which borders on Kurdish-inhabited areas of Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Ankara fears that an independent Kurdistan in former Iraqi territory might easily embolden fellow Kurds in Turkey.

However, if the Turks are concerned about Kurdish irredentism, why not treat their Kurdish citizens better and perhaps even grant autonomy? Of course, Turkey has little incentive to compromise if the U.S. continues its blank check policy towards Ankara.

Washington should also not forget the Christians in contested areas sandwiched between Kurdish and Iraqi-occupied zones, particularly in the plains of Nineveh.

Sadly, the harassment of Christians in Syria and Iraq has not been limited to ISIS; some Kurds have mistreated them as well. While some Christians have supported Kurdish independence, others have been quite wary. Many fear that whatever is left of their communities following ISIS genocide will suffer ultimate destruction in the event of a bloody conflict between the Iraqis and Kurds. We should ensure that this does not happen and perhaps also consider the options of autonomy or even independence for the local Christians.

In any case, both the Iraqis and the Kurds must be warned against abusing Christians. Erbil must be made to understand that any mistreatment of the Christians may easily forfeit them the moral high ground they currently hold in the court of American public opinion.

The bottom line is that, for both moral and practical reasons, the United States simply cannot allow Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran to crush the Kurds. And even if the three partitioning countries succeed, they should recognize that Kurdish aspirations will continue to surface in the future, perhaps with even greater vigor; Kurdish independence can perhaps be delayed but not avoided.

In the meantime, POTUS must speak out and, even more importantly, act.


Paweł Styrna is a Ph.D student in Russian history at a DC area university. He holds two MA degrees, one in modern European and Russian history (University of Illinois at Chicago) and another in statecraft international affairs (Institute of World Politics in Washington DC). Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.

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