Since as long as anyone can remember, policymakers in Washington avoided supporting the Kurds’ political aspirations for independence. In many cases Washington refused to even support Kurdish demands for substantive autonomy in Turkey, Iraq, Iran or Syria. This was Washington’s policy despite the fact that no Kurdish nationalist movement ever attacked an American, civilian or military. Even very Leftist Kurdish movements displayed little to no hostility towards America, while more conservative Kurdish parties always manifested a very pro-American and pro-Western attitude.
Yet American policy continued, until very recently, to keep its distance from the Kurds. Regarding Iraq, the “One Iraq Policy” mantra was repeated by American officials so often that everyone tired of the broken record. In Iran, the Americans avoided supporting Kurdish rebels as well, even while Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants drove exploding trucks into U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon. In Syria, the Americans seemed blind to the Kurds’ presence – at least until events of the last few years forced their eyes open.
Whenever this columnist asked American officials or Washington think tank analysts why this was the case, the answers seemed shockingly naïve and simplistic: “Turkey wouldn’t stand for it” was the most common refrain, followed by “Kurdish independence would destabilize the region too much,” and occasionally reinforced by “If the Iraqi Kurds secede, the end of Iraq will look like our fault.”
Let us address these in reverse order. First, the United States has dirty hands in a lot of places – Saddam’s regime, armed and aided by Washington from 1980 to 1988, was partly America’s fault. The 2003 invasion removed a ruthless mass murderer. If the Iraqi political parties in Baghdad (and especially Nuri al-Maliki) ruined the opportunity that Saddam’s overthrow handed them for a good country, that’s mostly their fault, not Washington’s. Iraqi Kurdistan has been the best success story of that whole costly American venture in Iraq, and Washington might as well go with what works instead of trying to beat a dead horse.
As for the possibility of Kurdish independence “destabilizing the region too much” – what stability are we talking about, exactly? In case policy makers in D.C. forgot, Iraq and Syria are failed states, Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in numerous proxy wars, Islamist radicals are popping up everywhere, Lebanon is perpetually on the brink of collapse, and Turkey is fighting a 33 year old insurgency by razing Kurdish cities to the ground and imprisoning peaceful, elected members of parliament. That’s just a quick survey of the Levant, to which we could add many more examples. A moderate, pro-Western, independent South Kurdistan might actually inject a bit of sanity into the whole fiasco of a region, especially if clear American backing prevented any military attempts to squash it at birth.
And finally we come back to the Ankara’s sensibilities regarding the Kurds. Ten years ago, if anyone went around Washington to tell people that America could militarily support a PKK affiliate (the Syrian Kurdish PYD or Democratic Union Party) without doing any significant, measurable damage to its relations with Turkey, they would have called him or her mad. Yet here we are – the PYD and its sub-branches receive heavy American weaponry daily, while American jets still use Incirlik air base in Turkey and Ankara does nothing but complain vocally.
This should not surprise anyone. The United States remains the world’s most powerful country, yet its leaders and diplomats seem intent on forgetting that most states need America more than it needs them. Just as Washington spent decades allied with both Saudi Arabia and Israel, so it can be with Kurds and Turkey, Kurds and Baghdad, and Kurds and others. The main difference will be that unlike in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Arab Iraq, people in Kurdistan will walk around saying good things about their American friends. They already do since a long time, even though significant American support (of a non-political nature) only came to the Kurds quite recently. And unlike Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, one can imagine that the Kurds will not support Jihadis and other virulently anti-American groups.
The point is simple in the end – the Kurds can make good allies for America rather than the kind of ‘frenemy” that seems to characterize every American relationship in the region save that with Israel. What’s more, the Kurds can hold their own militarily with just a fraction of the support given to actors such as the Iraqi army. These simple truths should make any American policy maker realize that supporting at least South Kurdistan’s independence offers a lot more potential gain than risk. Perhaps Washington always had a lot more Arabists, Persianists and Turanist experts than Kurdologists. That the sophisticated foreign policy elites of Washington were blind to this for so long nonetheless amazes this columnist.
Despite all his faults, at least U.S. president Trump seems to excel at seeing and understanding some simple truths. If so, one can hope he will make the right call when the issue of South Kurdistan’s independence comes to a head later this year.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas
G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is
the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily
reflect the position of Rudaw.