There is a lot of talk in the media and among military and political leaders these days about the Kurds and their fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. This author wrote of the option of going to fight ISIS with the Kurds, and one of SOFREP’s own traveled to the region, and has documented his own interactions with the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. In short, the Kurdish people have risen to a place of prominence in global affairs like no other time in their recent history.
Some in America may think that the Kurds already have their own country (in fact, they do not), and others may wonder why the Kurds remain stateless (they have their own militaries, after all, and regional governments). Confusion over these questions is understandable given the complexities of the region. However, America’s political leaders need to rise above the fog of the current conflict and reassess U.S. policy toward the Kurds, and toward the region as a whole. It is time for a dose of realpolitik with regard to this long-suffering people.
Prior to the American Revolution, during a geopolitically fragmented time in history—similar to today—Britain’s competing European powers made cold, calculated decisions based on great power politics, with regard to how they would treat the rebellious colonies and on which side their allegiance would lie. France and Spain, for example, chose to support the American colonies, as the two countries were vying with Britain for European dominance, while some German states sided with the British empire, as dictated by their geopolitical interests at the time.
Those former 13 British colonies, of course, succeeded in their struggle for independence, and went on to emerge as a great power in their own right, reshaping world history. Today’s United States finds itself in a similarly chaotic world, and needs to make similar strategic calculations and assess whether or not supporting Kurdish independence, in some form, stretching across some varied geographical expanse, will benefit America’s interests in the Middle East and globally. Like France in the last quarter of the 18th century, the U.S. needs to pick a winner and shape current affairs to mold the future geopolitical environment.
That winner, at least in southwest Asia, is an independent Kurdistan. Support for such an entity is in America’s long-term interests and should be a medium- to long-range goal of a new American grand strategy. In order to be intellectually honest in this discussion, however, one must stipulate some hard facts and challenging realities.
First, many of the Kurds are politically organized, at least in both Iraq and Syria, as social-democratic parties. This means they are democratic socialists, and are, in fact, derivative of past Marxist parties. Today, they are largely organized as democracies, and supportive of workers’ rights and equitable societies, along socialist lines. Being labeled “socialist” obviously does not endear a group to most Americans. Many U.S. citizens will equate a group with a Marxist heritage as immediately suspect, and not to be trusted. This, however, is antiquated thinking. America’s present threats do not include communism or Marxism, and the majority of the Kurdish groups are opposed to one of America’s biggest modern threats—militant political Islam.
Second, today’s Kurds are divided among a number of separate political and nationalist movements, and are spread across multiple international borders in southwest Asia. Primarily, they are located in Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. This greatly complicates a push for Kurdish independence. It means that some country, or countries, will lose territory if the Kurds gain a state. Countries do not like to lose territory, as a rule. This would present a great challenge to a push for Kurdish independence.
Third, the creation of a Kurdish state will antagonize not only America’s foes (i.e., Iran and Syria) but also its allies (Iraq and Turkey). Russia would also likely oppose the creation of a Kurdish state, given its own Islamist separatists, and its own Kurdish population. It is current U.S. foreign policy to recognize a unified and federal Iraq. It is also current U.S. foreign policy to support Turkey against its restive Kurds. However, our central goal in these policies is to avoid further conflict in the region and to support stable allies. Supporting Kurdistan need not, and should not, be undertaken through armed conflict, but rather, solely through diplomacy.
Fourth, this discussion must inevitably lead one to ask, do the Kurds even want an independent state? Various Kurdish groups vie for influence and power over the mass of the Kurdish people, such that overcoming these internecine conflicts could be a challenge. “Independence is a dream in the heart of every Kurd,” according to a public-affairs official at the Washington, D.C. office of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which the U.S. Government refers to as the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR).
However, the official noted upon being interviewed for this article that a decentralized, federal Iraq better serves the interests of the Kurds, Sunnis, and all other minorities in the country. The D.C.-based KRG official also noted that the Kurds were presently facing “far more pressing issues” than whether to declare independence. These include battling ISIS, and dealing with the resulting refugees from the conflict.
Obviously, such diplomatic language underscores that Kurdish independence is a long-term goal for essentially all Kurds, but that short-term realities—both political and military—prevent the various competing official Kurdish parties from pursuing this goal. In short, pressing for full independence now endangers the fragile pseudo-independence the Kurds currently enjoy and presents a struggle for a fragmented Kurdish political system. The Kurds walk a tightrope in seeking their long-term goal while preserving their short-term autonomy. Additionally, they face internal struggles over who should lead them, and who should speak for all the region’s Kurds.
According to Al-Monitor columnist and Kurdish political analyst Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “Most Kurdish groups do not officially [emphasis added] want a Kurdish state.” Wilgenburg points out that, while the Kurds might reach agreement on sharing power in the Kurdish areas of Syria (known as Rojava) and on a joint strategy toward Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq, they face hurdles given the fact that they are landlocked, and require good relations with Turkey to move their oil exports. This has led to conflict between the PKK and the KDP; while Turkey supports the latter when it comes to official Turkish-Kurdish relations, the U.S. and Turkey treat the former as a terrorist group.
The bottom line, it appears, is that officially, Kurdish political representatives will not openly advocate for independence, nor can they seemingly agree on their political stances or representation. However, one would probably be safe in assuming that if the United States found it in its interests to push for Kurdish independence, and shouldered the majority of the diplomatic burden with which this position surely came, the Kurds would sort out their internal issues, and get behind the push.
So, why should America put its diplomatic clout on the line to support a Kurdish state? Just as France did not support the American colonists simply out of idealism and adherence to liberty and fraternity, the fact that the Kurds are democratic and respect individual liberty is not enough to win more than moral support from the U.S. Rather, the Kurdish nation represents a strategic opportunity for the United States, which the country should not pass up.
An independent Kurdish state could provide a strong, reliable, democratic U.S. ally in southwest Asia. Despite the Marxist leanings of some sectors of the Kurdish political spectrum, America and the Kurds share democratic values and respect for individual rights and liberty. Secondly, United States support for a Kurdish state would redress one of the injustices of post-war boundary-drawing by the West, in which the Kurds (like the Palestinians) were left with no national government or state, even though they are the third-largest ethnic group in the region. A Kurdish state could lead to a more effectively organized and democratic (and hence, peaceful) Middle East.
Additionally, the United States can make the best of today’s chaotic and inflamed Middle East to rebalance the region in a manner commensurate with U.S. interests, including liberty and the right of self-governance for a long-oppressed people. The Kurds are operating from a position of power in their fight against Syrian forces and ISIS. The U.S. government has a window of time during which an independent Kurdistan does not seem impossible. The U.S. can harness this position of power to work in its favor.
How might such a push for Kurdish statehood be accomplished? To simplify what is an admittedly hugely complex diplomatic endeavor, it would require a grand bargain involving the United States, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and likely Russia and Israel. In an ideal world, the United States would push for an end to the Syrian conflict and a rapprochement with Iran, while offering Turkey and Russia political benefit for such a deal. In this way, all parties would gain from such an agreement and the region would be reshaped in a more stable form.
One can imagine Turkey content with an end to the Syrian conflict and a resolution to its Kurdish problem; Russia would receive assurances regarding its southern borders and restive regions; Iran would see an end to its decades-long conflict with America, and Syria would be given a chance to come out of its self-destructive conflict. Iraq would also have to be content with a Kurdish state next door, presumably in exchange for some form of diplomatic and security guarantees and assistance.
Most importantly, the United States would need to succeed in reshaping the Middle East in a manner that included a peaceful and compliant Syria, an Iran that puts its antagonistic relationship with America and Israel behind it, and a Kurdistan that helps the United States combat violent Islamism, providing a second liberal-democratic bulwark in the region.
Such a diplomatic fete would no doubt result in Nobel Peace prizes all around and would rank as one of modern history’s great political accomplishments. It would take significant effort, luck, and probably years to accomplish. Yet, such a maneuver would be greatly beneficial to America, the region, and the world. Kurdistan and a more peaceful Middle East are no longer an impossible dream.
This article was originally published on December 12, 2014. Author Frumentarius is a former Navy SEAL and a former Clandestine Service officer with the Central Intelligence Agency’s Counter-Terrorism Center. He has a Bachelor’s degree in International Politics and a Masters in History. He is currently a professional firefighter. Follow him on Twitter @SOFFru1
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