On Oct. 16, Iraqi armed forces and Iran-supported Shia militias moved into the disputed town of Kirkuk, bringing the country close to civil war.
The move was Baghdad’s decisive response to the referendum on independence that the Kurds of Iraq held on Sept. 25. The referendum produced a resounding majority for independence and a high turnout — more than 92 percent voted in favor of independence, with a 72.6 percent turnout, reflecting the stubborn determination of the Kurds to maintain and build a sovereign state.
The lines now are clearly drawn, as are the rights and wrongs of the case.
The Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq is the most peaceful and well-ordered section of that blighted country. The Kurds have given refuge to nearly 2 million of their fellow Iraqi citizens who were fleeing the onslaught of ISIS. In turn, the armed forces of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the Peshmerga, played the crucial role in stemming the advance of that murderous project and then turning it back, in close cooperation with U.S. air power. Many Kurdish fighters died in achieving this.
For Americans and other Westerners, the KRG has long constituted a unique space. Outside of Israel, it is the only part of the Middle East where public sentiment is solidly and, indeed, passionately pro-American and pro-Western. It also is safe. In Baghdad, Westerners cannot walk the streets in safety. The Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil is as safe as any Western city, and safer than many.
Over the past 25 years, the Kurds have built the KRG into a pro-Western de facto sovereign space, complete with its own armed forces, visa system, economy and parliament. Their ambitions do not end with autonomy, however. Language, outlook and history set them apart from the warring Shia and Sunni Arabs further south.
So the Kurds want independence. They want out of Iraq. The Sept. 25 vote was about kick-starting this process. The success of the referendum led to hopes for a swift negotiating process with Baghdad.
Instead, the countries surrounding the KRG have united in a vow to prevent Kurdish sovereignty by all available means.
How did we get here?
Iraq is not a historic entity. It was carved by the British out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire in the post-World War I period, when London and Paris were divvying up the former Ottoman territories of the Middle East. At that time, the Kurdish population lacked an organized national movement, and the Kurdish-majority territories were distributed among the new states of Iraq, Turkey and Syria (with an additional Kurdish population in Iran, outside of the former Ottoman territories).
This decision has led to much suffering. From the 1950s on, Iraq was governed by a virulent form of Arab nationalism. The rise of the brutal Baath Party in 1963, and then the ascendancy, from within the ranks of the party, of the executioner Saddam Hussein to Iraq’s helm, meant disaster for Iraq’s Kurds. They were deprived of the right to use their language and subjected to arbitrary expulsion from their homes as Hussein and the Baathists sought to leaven the Kurdish areas with Arab newcomers to end any hope of Kurdish sovereignty.
The West should recognize its failure in Iraq and embrace Kurdish aspirations.
The apogee came in 1988 when, in an effort to end Kurdish resistance once and for all, the Iraqi dictator lunched a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing and slaughter led by his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, henceforth to be known as “Chemical Ali.” In this campaign, between 50,000 and 182,000 Kurds died. The accurate number probably will never be known. What is known for certain is that in the town of Halabja, on March 16, 1988, 5,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed in a poison gas attack. Acording to a report by Human Rights Watch, “It is apparent that a principal purpose of [the attack] was to exterminate all adult males of military service age captured in rural Iraqi Kurdistan.”
This is the bitter legacy that the Iraqi Kurds carry.
If international affairs were dictated by moral decency, the case for Kurdish statehood would be open and shut. A people who were never consulted as to whether they wished to be joined to the Iraqi state, and who were treated with the most appalling brutality and cruelty by the regimes of that state to which they never wanted to join, and who have proven themselves the most democratic and civic-minded element of the population of that state, now wish to be afforded the liberty to create, finally, their own secure and sovereign country.
Yet despite the clear facts of the case, the West has chosen to back the Islamist administrations in Tehran, Baghdad and Ankara in their determination to oppose the emergence of Kurdish sovereignty. After the referendum, the government in Baghdad demanded that the Kurds hand over control of all oil revenue and border crossings, as well as control of the international airport at Erbil. Baghdad took unilateral control of Kurdish airspace. (I left Kurdistan on one of the last scheduled flights out of Erbil airport that Baghdad permitted to fly).
With the assault on Kirkuk, the Iraqis have demonstrated their willingness to back up their words with iron and steel.
Why is the West acquiescing to this?
Ostensibly, the reason has to do with the urgency to complete the war against ISIS. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk said the Kurdish referendum was “ill-timed and ill-advised.” This, he added, was the position of the “entire international coalition.”
But the notion that the referendum damages the war against ISIS by diverting attention from it is unsustainable. The war against ISIS in Iraq is largely won, with the final battle to drive them from their last urban holdings being waged right now. Kurdish independence will not get in the way.
So, what is the real reason for Western opposition?
First, the U.S. and its allies spent a great deal of blood and treasure in destroying the Saddam Hussein regime and installing a system of elections and formal democracy in Iraq. They are loath to see this project fail. At the moment, Iran-supported forces are in the ascendant in Iraq. The West hopes to assist those forces opposed to the Iranians in Iraqi politics. The Kurds need to remain part of Iraq, it is believed, to act as a counterweight to Iranian influence.
But Iranian domination of Iraq is quite complete with or without the Kurds. More important than Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the political structures in Baghdad are the Shia militiamen of the Popular Mobilization Units — 100,000 to 120,000 strong — raised when ISIS was heading for Baghdad but with no intention of disbanding, and controlled by pro-Iranian elements. This independent armed force, combined with other pro-Iranian social and political forces, will remain the principal instruments of Iranian influence in Iraq.
There’s a deeper cause for the resistance, however: an Arab-centric view of the Middle East that dominates Western universities and the scholars and policy advisers who emerge from them, resulting in a certain lack of interest, even a condescending indifference, to the Kurds, their aspirations and their memories.
If allowed to triumph, this view will combine failure with disgrace. Failure because Iraq is already dominated by Iran. Disgrace because the justice of the Kurdish case is self-evident.
Instead of denying the Kurds their due, the West should recognize its failure in Iraq and embrace Kurdish aspirations, and then make a strong friend and ally of the new Kurdish state. Instead of acquiescing to Iranian gains in the region, we should be enlisting the Kurds in the effort to roll them back.
But for that to happen, their legitimate demands for self-determination need to be acknowledged and supported.
The hour is late, as the gobbling up of Kirkuk by the militias and the army shows. But it’s not yet too late. The time to support Kurdish statehood has arrived.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at IDC Herzliya.