Why America Should Support Kurdistan
On September 25th, 2017 millions of Iraqi Kurds went to the polls to vote on whether or not Kurdistan should become an independant nation. Enthusiasm among the mostly Kurdish people of the autonomous region in Northern Iraq is high, more than three in four elligible voters casting ballots an hour before polls closed. The referendum is expected to pass, though its passage would not constitute or necessarily even lead to a formal declaration of independance by Iraqi Kurdistan. The measure is largely symbolic, demonstrating to the world and to themselves that the Kurdish people want their independence.
The moral and strategically wise thing for the United States to do is support them. The United States itself was born out of a desire for self determination, to be free of a central government that did not represent its interest. Some Kurds even compare their referendum and broader push for independence to the American revolution. And the Iraqi Kurds have suffered far more under the rule of countries they inhabit today than the United States ever did under Great Britain. For hundreds of years, they were subjects of the cruel Ottoman empire, notorious for slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Armenians . In 1927, shortly after the fall of the Ottoman empire, the Turkish Kurds declared themselves an independent republic, only to be brutally crushed by the Turkish government in a massacre they secretly referred to as “cleaning up” the region. A few decades after that, Saddam Hussein killed up to 12,000 Kurdish civillians with chemical weapons after an insurrection in the region. A western coalition created a no-fly zone afterwards, because Hussein could not be trusted not to massacre innocent Kurdish people again.
The United States has a proud history of supporting stateless peoples. In 1948, the United States supported the creation of a Jewish state in Israel, a homeland for a people persecuted for time immemorial around the globe. Most of the world collectively agreed that this people had the right to self determination and to not be persecuted. The same reasoning was held by the United States and its allies when they recognized the independant state of Kosovo in 2008, after decades of its people suffering under Serbian tyranny. Today, the Kurds are the world’s largest stateless people, and have endured persecution for most of their history. The morally right thing for the United States to do is support them in their bid for independence, as we did for Israel in 1948, for Kosovo in 2008, and as France did for America in 1775.
The United States is in a delicate situation because two of the four countries through which the Kurds are spread out are its rivals, Syria and Iran, and two are its purported allies, Turkey and Iraq. None of four want to see and independant Kurdistan.The concerns of the Syrian government should be irrelevant to US policy policy towards the Kurds; Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, has used chemical weapons on his own people and funded terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The United States would be foolish to give any weight to his wants. The only reason to give weight to Iran’s wishes is in ensuring its compliance to the 2015 nuclear deal; if Iran is sufficiently angered by US support for Kurds, it might threaten to withdraw. Such a threat would ultimately ring hollow; if Iran were to withdraw from the deal, the rest of the world would reinstitute upwards of $160 billion worth of sanctions on the country, crippling its finally recovering economy. Surely that is not a price it is willing to pay. Objections by Iran to a US military presence on its border with Kurdistan should carry no weight either; Iran has done nothing about the US military presence in Afghanistan and scattered throughout the Middle East.
Objections by American allies pose more of an obstacle to US support for Kurdistan than do its rivals. Turkey, a NATO ally long engaged in a struggle against its own Kurdish rebels, which has threatened to seal off a route used by the Iraqi Kurds to export oil because it fears a referendum by Kurds in Iraq will embolden its restive Kurdish region. Iraq, which the United States invaded in 2003 and helped to establish some semblance of democracy in, objects to the referendum because the probably “yes” vote would bring that third of the country’s land, including some oil-rich areas, closer to splitting from Iraq entirely. No country wants to lose land, let alone a large chunk of oil rich territory.
The United States should ignore these objections because it stands to gain more from a partnership with Kurdistan than it does with Turkey or with Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan operates as a democracy . Turkey has begun a slide into autocracy, with nearly 200 journalists in jail and expanded executive powers courtesy of their own questionable referendum earlier this year. Erdogan’s Turkey has even turned a blind eye to ISIS in the name of suppressing its Kurdish dissidents. NATO was founded to deter tyranny and uphold liberal values. Turkey fails this test. They consistently infringe upon and disrespect other western and NATO countries, occupying northern Cyprus since 1974 and using Syrian refugees to blackmail Europe into making concessions in its bid to join the EU. Turkey has made clear to the United States that it does not want to be America’s friend. We should honor that choice. Kurdistan has made clear that it does. We should help them do so.
The same can be said of Iraq, which has allied itself with Iran and funded Shiite militias in the fight against ISIS while undermining the Peshmerga. Its government and military are not serious about taking on the terrorists in Syria and within its own borders; its soldiers regularly flee battles, allowing ISIS to get its hands on American weapons . The Peshmerga, stands firm, as a bulwark of liberty, secularism, and democracy.
If the results of the referendum come back as a “yes,” the United States should do all it can to support an independant Kurdish nation. Kurdistan, like Israel, and Kosovo, has a right to exist, its people to no longer be persecuted by larger, stronger governments. Like the United States and every other people, the Kurds have the right to self determination. A Kurdistan would be a beacon of democracy and stability in a region defined by autocracy and chaos, a reliable ally against dangerous enemies in a place where, perhaps more than anywhere else, we need one. The United States would be moral and wise to support these people and their effort.