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Members of a Kurdish Peshmerga battalion show their ink-stained fingers after voting in the Kurdish independence referendum, September 25, 2017 (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of a Kurdish Peshmerga battalion show their ink-stained fingers after voting in the Kurdish independence referendum, September 25, 2017 (SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Why the Trump Administration Should Support an Independent Kurdistan

Lee Smith

Election officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government announced Wednesay that last weekend’s referendum on independence passed, overwhelmingly. With a turnout of 72 percent of more than 4.5 million eligible voters, nearly 93 percent voted in favor of realizing the Iraqi Kurds’ longstanding dream of independence. Still, the vote is non-binding and many analysts believe the referendum is largely a bargaining chip for the KRG to secure better terms from the Iraqi central government—either more power for the Kurds in Baghdad, or more autonomy for the KRG and perhaps eventually independence.

Baghdad is dead set against the referendum and disputes the legality of the ballot. The KRG’s two big neighbors, Turkey and Iran, are also against it, fearing, among other things, that independence for 8.35 million Iraqi Kurds is likely to influence their own sizeable Kurdish populations. Iran has closed its border with the KRG, and Turkey is threatening to close the pipeline through which KRG oil flows to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.

The United States is also opposed to the KRG referendum, in fact “deeply disappointed,” reasoning that the issue will distract attention from the campaign against ISIS, in which the KRG has been a useful partner. America’s main Middle East ally, however, is unequivocally in favor of an independent Kurdistan. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this month that Israel supports “the legitimate means of the Kurdish people to obtain their own state.”

Israel, like many supporters of the Kurds, appreciates the KRG’s pro-Western sensibility. And the KRG returns Israel’s affection, flying Israeli flags at independence rallies. Many Israelis and pro-Israel activists in the United States see the KRG’s national aspirations as a reprise of the story of Zionism—a stateless people with an enduring sense of nationalism whose fight for self-determination, ignored by much of the civilized world, promises peace and prosperity. As Israeli lawmaker Yair Lapid tweeted: “The Jewish people know what it is to struggle for a homeland. The Kurds have a moral right to a state of their own. I wish them luck today.”

There’s little doubt that Israeli officials truly are moved by the KRG’s dreams of statehood, but no one in the Middle East can afford to premise national interests on sentimental reasons. Israel sees the KRG as an ally, especially in its struggle with Iran. Jerusalem believes that an independent Kurdish state on Iran’s border will serve as a bridgehead against what it perceives as the region’s main strategic threat.

And that puts Israel at cross-purposes with the United States. The Trump administration believes that destroying ISIS is the key issue in the region, which is why it criticizes the referendum. However, the effect of the anti-ISIS campaign is to strengthen further Iran’s position—at the expense not only of Israel, but all American allies, and the United States itself. Thus, the KRG referendum highlights the strategic picture in the Middle East right now. It doesn’t look good for American interests.

It’s important to keep strategic concerns foremost when discussing the Kurdish issue, especially since much of the talk around the KRG referendum has argued from a moral position: i.e., Iraqi Kurdistan, a functional, pro-Western and largely democratic political entity, is more than deserving of statehood. The reality is that there are many peoples that deserve to have their national aspirations realized in the form of a state. Unfortunately, history is little but the chronicle of the ruins of the peoples, tribes, and nations wrecked on the shoals of their ambitions. Geopolitics does not redeem history—rather, it is the exercise through which powers large and small advance their interests. And thus it explains why there has never been, and perhaps never will be, a greater Kurdish state encompassing the estimated 35 million Kurds who inhabit a large, mostly contiguous area of the Middle East including northeast Syria, southeast Turkey, northeast Iraq, and a large part of Western Iran.

The typical explanation is that the Kurds’ dream of a Greater Kurdistan was betrayed by the colonial powers dividing up the former Ottoman Empire in the wake of WWI. But imagine you are a French or British colonial administrator surveying a map of the Ottomans’ former holdings: From east to west, the Kurdish territories do not touch sea or ocean. Greater Kurdistan is not a state because it is landlocked between two larger powers that are each other’s historical adversaries, Turkey to the west and Iran to the east, on which the Kurds are entirely dependent for access to the outside world.

Early 20th century Paris and London merely recognized what hundreds, maybe thousands, of years had shown: The Kurds are not themselves strategic actors. Rather, they are a buffer between two great historical powers that often took the shape of empire. From this perspective it appears that the Kurds are destined to serve as proxy forces for those larger powers, indeed sometimes even fighting each other, spurred on by their larger patrons as well as local rivalries.

Take Iraq, for instance. Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party is close to Ankara, in the last few years building military, trade, and energy partnerships with Turkey. Barzani’s local rival is Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, affiliated with Iran. In the mid-90s, the KDP and PUK went to war, with the latter supported by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been at war with Turkey since 1984.

Today the Turkey-Iran rivalry is playing out most dramatically and bloodily in Syria, where the Iranians are fighting on behalf of their ally Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey supports rebel groups opposed to the Syrian regime. Both Iran and Turkey have Kurdish clients, which is to say that the Kurds are once again in the middle.

Fragmented political entities like the Kurds are confusing. American policymakers don’t like the bother, which is one reason the U.S. State Department would prefer to conduct its relations with the Iraqi Kurds through Baghdad, as part of a unified Iraqi state. Confusion is why many analysts and journalists often elide the distinct and frequently competing currents of Kurdish politics and refer to the entire arena as “the Kurds.” But reducing those various political institutions to an abstract entity known as “the Kurds” is no more helpful in describing or understanding the political reality of the Middle East than it is to refer to region’s numerous Arabic-speaking sects and tribes as “the Arabs.” These are cultural or ethnic categories, not political. Nonetheless, the analogy may help illuminate the present strategic circumstances.

The same colonial powers that are supposed to have screwed the Kurds are also faulted for not creating the Arab super-state allegedly promised to the Arabs with the impending dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire. France and Great Britain knew very well that “the Arabs” were in fact a volatile gathering of competing sects and tribes. The British humored Arab nationalist aspirations, and supported T.E. Lawrence’s famous “Arab Revolt,” for one reason: to stir up trouble on the southeastern flank of Germany’s ally Turkey. That is, the Europeans understood the Arab question in geopolitical terms, based on the national interest during wartime. So, how can an independent Iraqi Kurdish state be tied to a broader structure and strategy that advances American interests?

Let’s start with Washington’s key Middle East ally, Israel, which sees the strategic issue clearly. Because Iran is the main problem in the region, an Israel-friendly state on Iran’s borders is a net positive, providing Jerusalem with, among other things, a listening post to collect vital intelligence. The problem is that an independent Iraqi Kurdish state would still be vulnerable to that much larger Iranian power on its border. The only way to prevent Iran from choking off the Kurds is if the Turks buy in to the project. Put simply, either Turkey or Iran have to support a fully independent Iraqi Kurdish political entity, or it is not viable as a state. If it’s Iran, it’s obviously not going to serve as a pillar in an anti-Iran block. It has to be Turkey.

A savvier or less beleaguered, perhaps less paranoid, president in Ankara might have seen the referendum as an opportunity to claim the nascent Iraqi Kurdish state as a Turkish vassal. Instead Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposes the referendum and has threatened to close down the KRG’s borders and the pipeline through which KRG oil goes to the sea. The issue isn’t primarily with the KRG itself, with which Erdogan has enjoyed very good relations. Turkey is concerned that the referendum promising one Kurdish political entity independence might further fuel the PKK’s war against Ankara. Erdogan himself has to cover his domestic flank or opponents may accusehim of being soft on the “Kurdish question.”

What makes matters even more volatile is that there is now a PKK entity to the south in Syria—an entity that because of its contributions to the anti-ISIS campaign has tremendous support from the West, in spite of the fact the United States and other countries have designated the PKK a terrorist organization. Perhaps Erdogan would not have been compelled to take such a publicly strong position against the KRG bid were the situation different in Syria. But the Obama administration’s pro-PKK policy was designed to constrain Erdogan’s actions in Syria, and now it appears the policy may have forced his hand regarding the KRG as well.

Some observers have mistakenly framed the KRG referendum as an instrument to push back against Erdogan, who has proven a problematic American ally, and even worse for Israel. Indeed, a former Israeli general recently tweaked Ankara when he said that the PKK wasn’t a terrorist organization. Yes it is a terror group, Netanyahu later corrected him. The Israeli prime minister added that Turkey should similarly acknowledge that Hamas, whose officials Ankara has sheltered, is also a terrorist group.

Still, Netanyahu understands that Turkish support for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is essential or else it can’t be integrated into the pro-American security architecture defending against Iran. The good news, according to some analysts, is that Erdogan will soon realign with the KRG, which would bring traditional American allies all into line. The bad news is that the Americans aren’t there.

It’s understandable that Washington wants a unified Iraq, the country that cost thousands of American lives and trillions of U.S. dollars to free from Saddam Hussein and later ISIS’s precursor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. The problem is that Baghdad is now controlled by Iran. Yes, it’s true that it was largely the Obama administration that handed the IRGC the keys to Iraq. But the Trump team’s continuation of the anti-ISIS campaign is simply consolidating Iran’s position in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

As Henry Kissinger noted last month, with the elimination of ISIS, it is the Islamic Republic of Iran that is will come to occupy the “territorial belt reaching from Tehran to Beirut, which could mark the emergence of an Iranian radical empire.” What Kissinger is referring to is the much discussed land bridge, from Beirut, via Damascus and Baghdad, to Tehran, that now keeps Western and Arab officials up at night. There’s another, less remarked, dimension to the problem: it is not simply that Iran, along with Russia, is expanding its reach—an Iranian land bridge also means that American ground is shrinking.

Trump administration officials try to soothe their Israeli and Arab counterparts, explaining that with the anti-ISIS campaign all but wrapped up, they will soon turn their attention to Iran. The sequencing is wrong: The Trump White House needs to re-order priorities and go after Iran first, then ISIS. Why? Because, among other reasons, any American efforts against Iran in the wake of an anti-ISIS campaign will have much less territory with which to base operations that constrain Tehran and Moscow. By letting Iran and Russia set up shop close to the borders of U.S. allies, like Israel, Jordan, and Turkey, and by continuing to clear territory that Iran and Russia swallow, the Trump administration is erasing the American position across the region.

The U.S. policy on the KRG referendum should be seen in this same context: to insist that Iraqi Kurdistan remain part of a unified Iraq under IRGC control forfeits a potentially valuable, pro-American, and pro-Israeli, asset in the effort against Iran. Conversely, supporting an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would go far in liberating the United States from the disastrous pro-Iranian policies that the Trump administration inherited from its predecessor.

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