We saw another log thrown onto the bonfire we know as the Middle East this past week with the plebiscite held by the Kurds in northern Iraq. The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in the world that does not have their own country. The map below shows the region where they live–and also highlights the international political maelstrom created by the power vacuum caused by Saddam Hussein’s overthrow.
Turkey, Iran & Iraq all publicly disavowed this plebiscite by the Kurds with both Iran & Turkey closing their borders to the Kurdish region in Iraq–with Iran sending fighter jets buzzing local Kurish populations in a clearly hostile manner. The Iraqis, for their part, don’t have the military moxi to prevent the Kurdish secession as the Kurds are the ones doing most all of the effective fighting against ISIS and these battle-tested Kurdish soldiers would probably fare quite well defending their homeland against an Iraqi “invasion” of sorts.
Adding fuel to the fire is the Kuridistan Worker’s Party, known as the PKK. The Turks, the EU, and the United States all list this group as an international terrorist organization. For many years and up to the present day, the PKK has engaged in countless terrorist atrocities in Turkey, supposedly with the avowed aim of establishing an independent Kurdistan. However, in the fight to defeat ISIS, the largely Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, has served as American proxies. The YPG has clearly demonstrated to be the most effective fighting force against ISIS and has received critical support from the US military–from air strikes to first class training from the US Special Forces. Obviously, members of the PKK have intermingled with the YPG.
While its no surprise that each of the Kurds’ neighbors oppose an independent Kurdistan, it is rather surprising that most of the Western countries, i.e., Europe and the United States, oppose an independent Kurdistan. For the United States, a look at the map below clearly points at one of the major the issues involved.
Iran is the largest Shi’a Muslim country in the world. Iraq has a large minority of Shi’a muslims though they make up a disproportionate, and substantial part, of the Iraqi Security Forces. Iraq’s fledgling government still needs a great deal of American support. Iraq’s security forces, however, with its substantial Shi’a component, receives a great deal of support from Iran. In essence, the US needs to build support for the Baghdad government while doing what it can to counter Iranian influence–especially in the Iraqi Security Forces. To the north, Turkey is a key NATO ally that is practically engaged in a counter insurgency of its own in southeastern Turkey. In addition, Turkey just happens to be host to Incirlik Air Force base, which may, or may not, host dozens of nuclear warheads. Dealing with a separatist Kurdish movement right now does not appear to the the most auspicious time.
While the above may be true, it does not disspel the notion that the United States has been fighting for the right of self-determination throughout the Middle East, like Afghanistan and Iraq–ironically, two countries that would appear to be anything but ready for democracy, inspite of the numerous attempts to secure this for each country. The Kurds, on the other hand, seem to be taking the initiative for self determination in spite of everyone persuading them against it. When it comes to the United States, our recent record with the Kurds is pretty abysmal: After the first Gulf War, the United States did everything to encourage these same Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein and over throw him–all but asking the Kurds to finish him off as the first President Bush stopped short of letting the US Army under General Norman Shwartkoff take care of him. When Hussein realized the United States was not going to prevent him for dealing with the Kurds in his own way, he resorted to measures typical to despots throughout history when threats, or perceived threats, to their power and authority arose: he bombed them, he tortured them, and he gassed them and creating a massive humanitarian nightmare in Northern Iraq. The United States finally established a no-fly zone in the area and rushed in food, water & clothing to these refugees, but it was more than too little, too late.
In the fight against ISIS, the Kurds have led the way with plenty of support from the US military. In this fight, the Kurds clearly emerged as the obvious, and only, choice: The Iraqis weren’t up to the fight, the Turks had their own interests in the region–which clearly did not parallel American interests, and the local indigenous fighters were no match for the ISIS fighters. So, here we have a very well trained–American trained–and battle-tested force of Kurdish militiamen supporting a democratically elected Kurdish separatist movement in Iraq, which has actually had nominal support from Turkish President Erdogan just a few years ago. Now, however, it is not the time to support the Kurdish movement?
Personally, I think the timing couldn’t be better: with the pending defeat of ISIS, there will be another power vacuum in the region. Iraq is not going to fill this vacuum and Iran would love to. If we don’t find someone not only that we want but who is also capable, as the Kurds appear to be, we are asking for a continuing conflagration in the region.