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Kurdistan Ignites New Mideast Fires: National Independence at What Price?

Doug Bandow

The people of Kurdistan have voted for independence from Iraq.
Baghdad already has retaliated against its rebellious province.
Iran and Turkey have threatened to respond as well. The Kurdish
vote also will exacerbate tensions in Syria, where Washington and
Ankara already have clashed over America’s reliance on
Kurdish forces in battling the Islamic State.

Iraq’s Kurds suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein’s
rule: he used poison gas and killed nearly 200,000. An American
“no-fly” zone effectively freed them of his control and
Erbil has been autonomous since 1991. That status survived the U.S.
invasion and subsequent sectarian war, though all parties
acknowledged the fiction of Iraqi sovereignty. For instance,
Washington’s military assistance to the Kurdistan Regional
Government officially passed through Baghdad. The Kurdish statelet
doesn’t enjoy UN membership, but otherwise acts largely
independently. Until now visitors could fly directly into the KRG,
as did I last year.

Of course, the Kurdish desire for independence is not unique.
Spain faces a political crisis after the government in Madrid
employed riot police to disrupt an independence referendum in
Catalonia. Scottish independence remains a live possibility.
Belgium is badly divided and Flemish residents have pressed for
greater autonomy if not a full-scale split. The French-speaking
province of Quebec once came close to leaving Canada. Somaliland
exists de facto independent of chaotic Somalia, the prototype of a
failed state. Independence campaigns succeeded in South Sudan,
Slovakia, Kosovo, East Timor, and the multiple nations derived from
Yugoslavia.

The most dangerous independence movement, at least from
America’s standpoint, today may be that in Taiwan. The Republic of
China survived the defeat of the nationalist government by the
Chinese communists when Chiang Kai-shek and his government moved
offshore to the island of Taiwan, which had been occupied by Japan.
Years ago the ROC gave up the pretense of ruling the mainland, but
the People’s Republic of China did not return the favor. Today few
Taiwanese identify with Beijing’s authoritarian rulers and by any
measure deserve their own internationally recognized state.
However, a formal declaration of independence would force the
Chinese government to act. And the rising nationalistic power is
unlikely to docilely accept the legal loss of such an important
land.

Kurdistan could prove to be even more dangerous. The Kurds
joined a long line of peoples 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.

This is one potential
conflict Washington should stay out of.

But there is no agreed upon criteria as to who gets to create a
country where and when. In practice, people get to secede when they
are able to secede. Only a few succeed.

What about the Kurds? No event precipitated last week’s vote.
With presidential elections scheduled next month domestic politics
was an important factor. Still, the KRG has a bill of particulars
against Baghdad—broken promises, constitutional violations,
political failures—that makes a plausible case for
separation. However, 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.
The Islamic State’s surge stalled Kurdistan’s economic development;
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. Moreover, Kurds in Syria have created an autonomous
region out of the collapse of the Syrian state and chaotic civil
war. Opposition to the Islamic State yielded American military
support though not political sponsorship.

In contrast, Turkey’s Kurds have suffered under the full weight
of the Turkish military. The first round, from about 1978 to 1999,
displaced hundreds of thousands, imprisoned scores of thousands,
and killed tens of thousands. Thousands of villages were destroyed.
The war reignited two years ago, with a resurgence of brutality,
destruction, and death. Iran’s Kurds have avoided a similar fate
because they are better integrated nationally, though armed
resistance occurred even there. But their dissatisfaction
remains.

There is no inherent reason why Washington must take a position
when other people seek independence. However, U.S. policymakers
find it almost impossible to resist the temptation to meddle in
affairs of no particular interest to America. And in this case
Washington’s seemingly hopeless entanglement in the Mideast makes
Kurdish affairs important.

America never paid much attention to Kurds in Iran and
Syria—there were no militant independence movements, the
ruling regimes were hostile to America, and both nations posed
larger security challenges. In Turkey, which contains the largest
number of Kurds, Washington ignored the ill consequences of the
government’s brutal military campaign, fought with
U.S.-supplied weapons. Then, at least, Ankara was a key American
ally. Humanitarian considerations were of little concern.

In Iraq support for Kurdish autonomy advanced America’s
geopolitical ends, most notably constraining Saddam Hussein’s
government. The Kurds have remained helpful allies over the 14
years since the U.S. invasion, during which the Baghdad government
has not been in position to reassert authority over Kurdish
territory. However, tensions have risen as Kurdish forces extended
their territorial control while defending against ISIS, including
to Kirkuk, a contested city also claimed by Arabs and Turkmen. As
the threat from the Islamic State receded the Abadi government was
likely to turn its attention toward the KRG.

Now Erbil’s referendum multiplied the dangers. Opposition
to Kurdish independence may be the one issue uniting Iran, Iraq,
Syria, and Turkey. Ellen Laipson of the Stimson Center argued that
“It should not be beyond imagination for statesmen of good
will to negotiate a new status for Iraqi Kurdistan.” Of
course, one can imagine that. But this is the Middle East. It is
going to remain a matter of imagination.

Erbil rejected proposals for mediated talks with Baghdad:
Kurdistan desires independence. However, such talks would not
likely have yielded a solution. Behind Prime Minister Haider
al-Abadi hovers his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, who originally
won power using the Shia nationalist card.

Abadi demanded nullification of the “illegal” and
“unconstitutional” referendum results. He promised to
take all “necessary measures to preserve the unity of the
country.” His government also requested control of Erbil and
Sulaimani airports; refused by Kurdistan, Baghdad closed down air
traffic into the autonomous territory. Baghdad has moved to take
control of Iraq’s border posts in Kurdish territory. The
Abadi government is conducting joint military exercises with Turkey
and announced similar maneuvers with Iran. More ominously, the
Iraqi parliament authorized the movement of military forces into
the disputed city of Kirkuk and use of troops to take control of
oil resources under the Kurds’ control; legislators also
urged the Abadi government to bring charges against the Kurdish
leaders.

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. Said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan:
“We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then
it’s done.” Turkey’s parliament extended the
authorization for Turkish troops in both Iraq and Syria. He warned
that the KRG risked bearing “the shame of having dragged the
region into an ethnic and sectarian war.” Kurdish leaders
believe that Erdogan is bluffing, given economic considerations,
but they may underestimate the power of the same nationalism which
is pushing them toward independence.

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. Militias allied with Tehran, the Popular Mobilization Units or
Quds Forces, have been operating in Iraq and also could become
involved.

In Syria the Assad government backed away from Kurdish areas
early in the civil war, giving greater space to the Kurdish
Democratic Union Party, which has created an autonomous region
called Rojava. But the YPG is tied to Turkey’s Kurdistan
Workers Party, and Ankara used its military to constrain the
ambitions of Syrian Kurds. Moreover, if President Bashar al-Assad
consolidates control he also may move to curb Kurdish autonomy.

In short, the cause of Kurdish independence could spark multiple
conflicts. And Washington would face pressure to choose sides.

Kurdistan has its advocates. Kurds fought Hussein, gave refuge
to religious minorities, and battled the Islamic State, playing an
especially important role in the liberation of Mosul and battle for
Raqqa. Kurds are religious moderates, friendly to Israel, and
pro-Western. Kurdistan is not as democratic and free as sometimes
claimed; it is essentially a Barzani family enterprise. Kurdish
parliamentarian Rabbon Marof, who promoted the “No for
Now” campaign, complained: “We don’t have rule of
law—we have a monarchy.” But given its neighbors, Iraq,
Iran, Syria, and, these days, Turkey, the Kurdish statelet
doesn’t look so bad even on this score.

Washington long offered the Kurdish leadership discreet, private
assurances of support, but then strongly opposed the
“provocative” referendum. Secretary of State Tillerson
said that Washington did not recognize a referendum that
“lacked legitimacy.” That stance probably was inevitable,
given fears of further destabilizing an already war-ravaged
region.

Some analysts urged Washington to intervene to at least calm the
waters. For instance, said the Washington Post’s
David Ignatius: “The United States owes it to the Kurds
to help broker their dialogue with Baghdad” and
“de-escalate tensions that could destabilize” the KRG.
Guardian’sSimon Tisdall argued that it “is
time to settle the debt” from the Western allies to the
Kurds. Bloomberg’s Eli Lake suggested that U.S. officials
“could exercise some leverage—not only to protect their
Kurdish allies, but also to stabilize the region.” He would
threaten to cut off aid to Ankara and Baghdad.

The belief that U.S. officials can limit regional opposition to
the KRG’s unilateral moves toward independence evokes
thoughts of the Tooth Fairy and Great Pumpkin. After all, if it was
possible for Washington to stabilize the region, America would
already have done so. To cut aid to Iraq would undercut the regime
that Washington just went to great expense and effort to save from
destruction by the Islamic State.

Turkey spent decades brutally suppressing Kurdish separatism;
how likely is President Erdogan, who has greatly enhanced his
domestic power by playing the nationalism card, to back down
regarding Kurdistan? Ankara already is putting distance between
Turkey and the U.S. and NATO. Additional threats aren’t
likely to dissuade the Erdogan government from protecting what it
views as vital interests.

Obviously, negotiation among the interested parties would be
better than confrontation and conflict. Indeed, it probably would
be best for Kurdistan to focus on enacting economic reform, freeing
its political system, improving relations with Baghdad and Ankara,
and strengthening its autonomous status. However, Kurds have been
waiting a long time to move from de facto to de jure
independence.

Moreover, from Iraq’s standpoint there is nothing to negotiate:
Baghdad has no reason to accept an independent Kurdistan. Iran and
Turkey gain nothing from tolerating what looks to be a contagion
which could divide their nations. The Assad government can make few
demands now, but Ankara might act to prevent a de facto Syrian
Kurdish state on its border.

Kurds are entitled to their own country. In theory. But reality
is very different. Kurds live in a dangerous region, surrounded by
opponents of their independence ambitions. If they make a nation,
they deserve Americans’ best wishes. But this is one potential
conflict Washington should stay out of.

Ike Brannon is
a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute and president of Capital
Policy Analytics.