The United States has no better ally in the fight against the Islamic State than the Kurdish Peshmerga. But what do they get for their struggle and drawn blood when the ISIS tide has receded? Not much. For many, that’s not an acceptable outcome of this war.
“I think they would fight like hell if we promised them a country,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) recently said of the prospect of an independent Kurdistan. While it’s clear that the Kurds are fighting “like hell” today even without the promise of statehood, there are a number of Americans on both sides of the political aisle who would agree with Paul.
“Paul has joined the chorus of Republicans calling for the U.S. to directly arm the Kurds without passing through the Iraqi government, but he has now taken a step further by calling for Kurdish independence,” CNN reported. “It’s a move that would certainly upset Iraq’s government in Baghdad, which is struggling to hold together a fractious and complex coalition of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds to keep the country in one piece.”
Even conservatives who would agree with Paul on little else with regard to the conduct of American foreign affairs are on the same page when it comes to a free Kurdish state.
“The emergence now of a Kurdish state would profoundly alter the region by simultaneously adding a sizable new country and partially dismembering its four neighbors,” wrote the conservative columnist Daniel Pipes in September of last year. “This prospect would be dismaying in most of the world. But the Middle East — still in the grip of the wretched Sykes-Picot deal secretly negotiated by European powers in 1916 — needs a salutary shake-up.”
From this perspective, the emergence of a Kurdish state is part of the region-wide destabilization, dangerous but necessary, that began in Tunisia with the Arab Spring in December, 2010. Accordingly, I offer a hearty welcome to its four potential parts joining soon together to form a single united Kurdistan.
Even NATO-allied Turkey, once the primary obstacle to Kurdish independence due primarily to the fear that a new state would destabilize Kurdish regions of Turkey and provide new legitimacy to the Kurdish Worker’s Party (a group the State Department continues to view as a terrorist organization), is warming to the prospect of a pliable Kurdistan on its border.
“The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in,” said a spokesperson for the ruling party in Ankara this past summer in what came to be seen as a tectonic shift in Turkish views on Kurdish autonomy. That statement should also be considered a declaration of Turkey’s intentions to create a sphere of influence in the Near East.
But a realist view does not embrace the ascension of new states merely on the basis of self-determination. Reckless Balkanization can result in the creation of nations like South Sudan, a country which has been at war with its neighbors since its independence in 2011 and which has been implicated in ‘crimes against humanity’ by the United Nations.
So the key question from a realist perspective is whether a free Kurdistan benefits the United States? There are mixed views on that matter.
A free Kurdistan would necessarily mean the dissolution of the Iraqi state as it is presently constituted, and while the West can be reasonably sure that Kurdistan would be a pro-Western entity (for now) there are fewer guarantees about the remaining two key regions of that nation.
A view of the Turkish reporter Emre Uslu, writing in AL-Monitor in late 2013, warned why an independent Kurdistan is a threat to U.S. interests in the region. And Washington’s policymakers know it.
First, the US will have to intervene in what will inevitably be a new crisis, just as it is trying to get out of Afghanistan. Americans have no intention to intervene. The US is reshaping its operational presence in the Middle East in accordance with “offshore balancing,” as we saw in Libya. It is extremely costly for the US to intervene in crises with ground troops. It does not want another crisis in Iraq that may require American troops on the ground.
Second, the US wants to counterbalance Shiite influence in Iraq over the Kurds and Sunnis. For Kurds and Sunnis to secede from Iraq and set up their own states means total Iranian tutelage over the critical oil region of Basra. The last thing Americans want is for the Shiites to be under Iranian control after the Kurds declare independence, as that would remove the strongest barrier to Iran’s Shiite crescent strategy. The US will not allow the Shiite region to go under Iranian control. Here, Barzani has a critical role to play. As long as Kurds and Sunnis are in Baghdad, they will always keep Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Iran’s regional aspirations in check. No doubt, Tehran loves the idea of Kurdish independence.
Third, the US has always perceived the Kurdish region as an island of stability. Declaring its independence would mean decades of instability and new enmities in the region. America wants to be able to safely transfer the energy resources in both the Kurdistan Regional area and Kirkuk to Western markets. The US is pursuing a cold war strategy against Iran with no end in sight. A key pillar of this strategy is the embargo on Iranian oil. While the US created this strategy with its risks in mind, it is not going to allow Barzani to declare independence and destabilize Iraq’s oil regions indefinitely.
Some might contend that this is the de facto state of affairs today. The rise of ISIS, the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces, and the unwillingness of the United States to guarantee Iraq’s territorial integrity all combined to create the conditions that allowed – even welcomed – Iranian forces to flood into Iraq. Not only does Iranian influence dominate the Basra Governorate, but Tehran also largely dictates terms in Baghdad.
It was Uslu’s fourth point in opposition to a free Kurdistan that was the most compelling: The effect it would have on America’s regional allies, most notably Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh’s worst fears were realized this year when Iranian proxies took control of the government in Yemen. A free Kurdistan would mean Iran’s overt influence would come to dominate the territory to Saudi Arabia’s north. The Saudis began the process of constructing a massive, multi-layered wall on its northern border earlier this year in order to protect against ISIS incursions. Surely, that defensive barrier will serve a dual purpose in also shielding the state from Iranian destabilization.
Iran’s regional ambitions will continue to force Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to take their security into their own hands. A “shake up” of the situation in the Middle East, as Pipes and Paul appear eager to invite, may not necessarily be in America’s best interests. At least, not today.