Tablet Magazine

What Kurdish Independence Would Mean

Lee Smith on the future of Kurdistan

Former Senior Fellow
Iraqi Kurds hold the Kurdish flag and a poster of Iraqi Kurdistan's regional president Masoud Barzani (R) in Akra, Iraq's, March 20, 2014. (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Kurds hold the Kurdish flag and a poster of Iraqi Kurdistan's regional president Masoud Barzani (R) in Akra, Iraq's, March 20, 2014. (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

The president of the Kurdish Regional Government Massoud Barzani announced today that he intends to call for a referendum on independence within the next few months. And if the Kurds do elect to break free of the central government in Baghdad, they’ll have at least one regional actor eager to acknowledge them as an independent state—Israel.

“They are a warrior nation, that is politically moderate,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the Kurds in a speech Sunday. They are “worthy of statehood,” Netanyahu continued. “We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence. They deserve it.”

However, as the pioneers of Zionism knew very well, whether a people deserves a state is a very different question than whether or not they are able to attain one. The Kurds are indeed a warrior nation, and likely capable of defending the borders of a prospective state. The problem, however, is in getting to the point where you can draw borders, which has little to do with the right to self-determination, or even material wealth, which the potentially oil-rich Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, may soon have in abundance. Rather, it’s about geopolitics and the disposition of larger, more powerful states. And at this point it seems that besides Israel, none of the regional and international players involved—above all, Turkey, Iran, and the United States—have any interest in promoting Kurdish statehood.

As I’ve argued previously, the various upheavals now roiling the fertile crescent may indeed presage the end of a century-old regional order. Maybe Iraq and Syria as we have known them since the end of World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire really have ceased to exist, but it’s also possible that the many Middle East experts forecasting a new regional topography are simply suffering from irrational exuberance.

Indeed, talk of a Kurdish state is perhaps an index of how confusing the Middle East has become even to Middle East experts of late. When Israel says it is eager to acknowledge Kurdish independence, it is presumably referring only to the five million Kurds of the KRG. The prospect of a larger Kurdish nation, a Kurdistan comprising the tens of millions of Kurds around the region that other Kurdish entities, like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), have fought for is very unlikely, at least right now. That’s because the two most powerful states with significant Kurdish populations—Iran and Turkey—are not going to abandon large parts of their territories for the sake of Kurdish self-determination. Indeed, Tehran and Ankara are even against a breakaway KRG state that might inflame the separatist passions of their own very large Kurdish populations.

The White House doesn’t want it to happen either. The integrity of Iraq is a fundamental principle of U.S. policy, which is why the Obama administration has repeatedly been at odds with Barzani over the KRG’s oil deals with Turkey. However, since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops, the White House has very few cards to play in Iraq, or with the Kurds.

The KRG says it wouldn’t declare a state without telling Turkey first, but Ankara is opposed to the idea, saying it too wants a unified Iraq. If Barzani does push for independence, he’s gambling that the Turks will concede that, one, KRG oil deals are more valuable than KRG statehood is dangerous, and two, that Kurds are still a valuable buffer zone vis a vis Iran. In other words, Barzani has to weigh the dreams of statehood against the strategic realities of the Middle East.

Still, it’s not difficult to see why the Israelis are enthusiastic about the prospect of an independent Kurdish state. Jerusalem has long looked to the peripheries of the Middle East for regional partners—pre-revolutionary Iran, pre-Erdogan Turkey, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Lebanon’s Maronite community. The search for new allies may be an especially useful pursuit now with the Middle East seemingly in transition. The various upheavals could present new horizons, and the KRG, which has long seen Israel as an ally, is an appealing opportunity.

The issue, however, is that a KRG state would be fundamentally weak since it would have to take into account bigger and more important powers like Turkey and Iran. This may have serious implications for Jerusalem, given its current relations with an adversarial Tehran and an often hostile Ankara. In short, it’s not clear then how an alliance with an independent KRG enhances Israel strategically.

Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, notes that there are echoes of another alliance the Israelis made more than 30 years ago with Lebanon’s Christian Maronite community. “After the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Israelis felt betrayed by the Maronites, but this community had to worry about powerful regional actors, like Syria and Saudi Arabia,” Badran said. Israel paid for that strategic gaffe with an 18-year war that concluded with Iran’s virtual takeover of Lebanon through its long arm on the eastern Mediterranean, Hezbollah.

In some sense, then, Israel’s support for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is as emotional as it is strategic. Looking at its own history and position in the Middle East, Israel can’t help but take the side of a regional minority, one with a moderate political culture, which is buffeted by regional powers and still fights for its national aspirations. That’s undoubtedly one reason that Israel supports Kurdish statehood. The other reason that Jerusalem is for an independent KRG while its superpower patron America stands opposed is that Israel is looking at the future of the Middle East—a future in which it goes its own way because the United States is no longer there.