The United States should support an independent Iraqi Kurdistan
Since the vote for independence took place in Iraqi Kurdistan on the 25th of September, there has been an outcry from foreign commentators insisting that “now is not the time.” What they fail to mention, however, is when that time will be. On the 23rd of November, it will have been exactly one century since the Western plan to draw lines in the sand and create national spheres of influence in the Middle East, known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was introduced to the public. This agreement, originally kept a secret by the colonial powers, resulted in the Kurdish people being scattered across four states. Throughout modern history, they have remained one of the world’s largest indigenous populations without a country of their own.
This blatant act of colonial injustice still has painful effects for the Kurds, mistreated for decades by the governments of Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. The rule of these states has prevented them from being able to properly embrace their language, their culture, and their traditions. Following the ratification of a new Iraqi constitution in 2005, Kurdish regional autonomy was made official for what is often referred to by Kurds as Southern Kurdistan. Tensions did not subside, however. In 2012, Baghdad sought control over the Peshmerga, Iraqi Kurdistan’s defense force. Evidently, the Kurdistan Regional Government did not oblige, and since the beginning of the Iraqi Civil War in 2014, territorial disputes have plagued the relationship between Erbil (the Iraqi Kurdish capital) and Baghdad. Iraqi forces recently seized most of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from the Peshmerga, meaning that the military tension between the two political entities is higher than it has been at any point since the US invasion of Iraq. Independence for the Kurdish people in Iraq is not only the morally just thing to do, it’s the only way to ensure the protection of Kurdish autonomy in the country.
Pushing forward with the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is bound to be better for American national security interests as well. Nowhere the Kurds reside is the national sentiment going to dissipate and another power vacuum opening up in Iraq would actively work against US interests. If the world kicks Kurdish independence further down the road, that sentiment could provoke unexpected conflict and weaken the ability of both the KRG and the Iraqi government to stave off insurgency. Would it not be better to simply resolve this issue alongside the conclusion to the conflict we find ourselves wrapped up in now? Supporting the push for independence is the proper course of action for the United States because it allows us to have control over the situation. Of course, we would have to do more than acknowledge the legitimacy of independent rule. The United States should play an active role in the process, ensuring a continued amicable relationship with Baghdad and the continued ability of the government in Erbil to exert control over their territory. Not only must we help negotiate the terms of independence, but we must lend support to the Kurdish government following the split to ensure institutional, and in turn regional, security.
American politicians should not find this to be a difficult cause to stand for. Kurdish militias in both Iraq and Syria have proven to be indispensable allies in the widely publicized fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Kurdish political culture embraces the Western values of democracy, feminism, and secularism. Israel, whose positions tend to be quite important to US policy makers, fully supports the prospect of an independent Kurdish state.Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has already put out a statement calling on the Trump administration to support Kurdish independence.A bill has been introduced by Republican Representative Trent Franks calling for the support of an independent state.And Representative Grothman has said publicly that there is “overwhelming support” in the US Congress for the Kurdish people. The prospect of US recognition and active support is entirely plausible.
The United States has lost its global moral authority in the past few decades thanks to its actions in the Middle East. Embracing an independent Kurdistan puts it on a course to get it back. President Trump can lend credibility to his nationalist policies by embracing the UN Charter’s principle of self-determination and sympathizing with the plight and hopes of the Kurdish nation. In one act, the president can signal that he won’t bow to the whims of states he views as adversaries, reinforce his nationalist rhetoric, and restore some semblance of moral authority for the United States by working towards the freedom of the Kurdish people. For the Kurds, independence is freedom.
Christopher Duffy graduated in 2017 from the University of Maryland with a degree in Government & Politics, along with minors in International Development & Conflict Management and Global Poverty. While studying at UMD, he served as the campus Peace Corps Ambassador and helped to lead the “Terps for Bernie” student organization during the 2016 presidential campaign. He is currently pursuing an MA in Global Policy with a Development specialization and hopes to work on state building efforts in emerging nation-states.