Happy Fourth of July, Kurdistan
Pop quiz: What side does the United States support? On one side are the Iraqi Kurds. Backed publicly by Turkey and Israel, and privately, by a growing chorus of academic, political and economic leaders from around the world, the 20+ million people who call themselves Kurds are the largest nation in the world without a country of their own. On the other side is the current Iraqi government. Backed publicly by Iran, and privately by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government has worked for years to disassociate itself from the United States while alienating its Sunni and Kurdish partners.
One might be surprised to learn that the Obama administration has come out rather publicly in support of Iraq – a country that has increasingly appeared as a client state of Iran. This week it was reported that no less than Secretary of State John Kerry, and Vice President Joe Biden, have been actively lobbying Kurdish and Sunni Iraqis to remain part of a unified, albeit Shiite-led government.
At first glance, supporting the status quo might make sense. The United States did, after all, fight to liberate Iraq’s citizens from the grip of madman Saddam Hussein (whether it intended to or not). And while not a friend of America, the Iraqi government has been democratically elected to represent a state operating in borders recognized by the international community. But dig a little deeper and all of these arguments start to unravel.
The Kurds have been a loyal ally of the United States for quite some time. Over 100,000 died at the hands of the Saddam regime, and yet they still fought valiantly on the side of U.S. forces during the invasion in 2003. Sandwiched between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, Kurdistan is a beacon of stability in a sea of growing insecurity. The Kurds are a moderate, modern, Sunni Muslim power that openly trade with Israel in the face of Arab resistance. They have everything a country should have: a stable economy, an educated population, a unique ethnicity, a rich historical narrative, and perhaps most importantly, a legitimate right to self-determination.
The Iraqi government on the other hand has been anything but loyal. It refused to allow any American troops to remain in Iraq during U.S. Status of Forces negotiations in 2008. It has cozied up to Iran for over a decade, even when it was clear they were behind a growing number of American troops being killed in Iraq. It alienated Sunni Iraqis, helping usher in radical ISIS militants. It is culpable in the death of tens of thousands in Syria, as it has allowed Iran to fly over its airspace and reinforce both the Assad regime and Hezbollah. It allows Russian and Iranian military aircraft to operate openly in its country. And after all this, it now has the gall to request U.S. military and political aid once again as its policies have now come back to haunt it.
Despite U.S. pleas, after decades of slow, patient movement towards independence the Kurdish people finally called for a referendum to gain a state of their own in Iraq’s north. To be sure, gaining complete independence will not come easy. Iran is a dangerous foe who has the power to make things very difficult. Indeed, the Kurds will need all the help that they can get.
Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, America has made a mockery of its Middle East policies, resulting in the loss of faith of its allies and a reduction in the strength of its deterrence. Today, the region is yearning for America to lead again. On this Fourth of July weekend, as the world’s greatest democracy celebrates its independence, it has an opportunity to right that wrong by reversing course and supporting the Iraqi Kurds in their road to independence.
Dr. Joshua Gleis is an author, analyst, and security consultant.