The Kurds Are About to Blow up Iraq

By Michael J Totten, MEFORUM

Next month, on September 25, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil will hold a binding referendum on whether or not to secede from Iraq. It will almost certainly pass. More than a decade ago, the Kurds held a non-binding referendum that passed with 99.8 percent of the vote.

No one knows what’s going to happen. Iraq is the kind of place where just about anything can happen and eventually does.

Kurdish secession could go as smoothly as a Scottish secession from the United Kingdom (were that to actually happen) or a Quebecois secession from Canada, were that to actually happen. It could unfold like Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, where some countries recognize it and others don’t while the Serbs are left to stew in their own juices more or less peaceably.

This is a serious business, though, because Iraq is not Britain, and it is not Canada. And there’s a potential flashpoint that travelers to the region would be well advised to stay away from for a while.

Shortly after ISIS invaded Iraq from Syria in 2014, the Kurdistan Regional Government effectively annexed the oil-rich governorate of Kirkuk. Ethnic Kurds made up a plurality of the population, with sizeable Arab and Turkmen minorities, before Saddam Hussein’s Arabization program in the 1990s temporarily created an artificial Arab majority.

Since then, Kurds have been returning to the city en masse while many Arabs, most of whom had no history in the region before Saddam put them there, have left. No one really knows what the demographics look like now.

It’s a tinderbox regardless of the actual headcount. Some of the Arabs who still live there could mount a rebellion at some point, either immediately or down the road. If they do, they might engage in the regional sport of finagling financial and even military backing from neighboring countries.

Then again, Arabs have been trickling north into the Kurdistan region for years because it’s peaceful and quiet and civilized. It’s the one part of Iraq that, despite the local government’s corruption and inability to live up to the democratic norms it claims to espouse, works remarkably well.

I’ve been to Iraqi Kurdistan a number of times. It’s safer than Kansas. My only real complaint is that it gets a bit boring after a while. If you’re coming from Baghdad or Mosul, it’s practically Switzerland.

Kurdish graffiti on the walls of an Iraqi army base outside Kirkuk reads, “We will not leave Kirkuk.”

Kirkuk Governorate, though, is—or at least recently was—another story. The three “core” Kurdish governorates—Dohuk, Erbil, and Suleimaniyah—have been free of armed conflict since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, but Kirkuk was down in the war zone. I went there ten years ago from Suleimaniyah and was only willing to do so under the armed protection of Kurdish police officers. Had I wandered around solo as I did farther north, I would have risked being shot, kidnapped or car-bombed. I still could have been shot or car-bombed alongside the police, but at least kidnapping was (mostly) off the table. The very fact that Kirkuk was a war zone at a time when the Kurdish governorates to the north were not suggests that the Kurds may be swallowing more than they can digest.

Kirkuk has oil, though, while the governorates to the north mostly don’t, so of course the Kurds want it. Baghdad, of course, wants to keep it for the same reason. Will Iraq’s central government go to war over it? Probably not. Saddam Hussein lost his own war against the Kurds in the north, and he had far more formidable forces at his disposal than Baghdad does now. Still, it’s more likely than a war between London and Edinburgh, or between Ottawa and Montreal.

The biggest threat to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan comes not from Baghdad but from Turkey.

The biggest threat to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan comes not from Baghdad but from Turkey. The Turks have been fighting a low-grade counter-insurgency against the armed Kurdish separatists of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) since the 1970s that has killed tens of thousands of people, and they’re deathly afraid that a free and independent Kurdish state anywhere in the world will both embolden and assist their internal enemies.

While Turkey is no longer likely to invade Iraqi Kurdistan on general principle if it declares independence—a going concern shortly after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein—the Turkish government is making it clear that it is supremely unhappy with the KRG including Kirkuk in its referendum. “What really concerned us,” a spokesperson for Turkey’s president said in June of this year, “was that Kurdish leaders want to include Kirkuk in this process while according to the Iraqi constitution Kirkuk is an Iraqi city and is not within Kurdish boundaries … If any attempts will be made to forcefully include Kirkuk in the referendum question, problems will be made for Kirkuk and its surrounding areas.”

One can sympathize with Turkey’s fears. The Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers Party is, without question, a terrorist organization. Even so, nations have a right to exist even if they are inconvenient to Turkey—especially considering that Iraq’s Kurds are not terrorists.

Iraq’s Kurds are America’s only reliable allies in the entire country.

Rather than terrorists, Iraq’s Kurds are America’s only reliable allies in the entire country. They’re as pro-American as Texans; they’re the only ones who didn’t take shots at us during and after the overthrow of Saddam; and they were, for a time anyway, the only ones willing and capable of taking on ISIS directly and winning. They do not align themselves with Iranian-backed militias as the central government in Baghdad does, and they certainly aren’t on side with Hezbollah and the Kremlin like the Syrian government. They are as allergic to political Islamism as Americans are. They view it, with some justification, as an alien export from the Arab world.

The Trump administration opposes Kurdistan’s bid for independence. It could, says the White House, be “significantly destabilizing.” Perhaps. But it’s a bit rich for Americans, of all people, to say no to people who want to break away from a country that smothered them beneath a totalitarian regime, waged a genocidal extermination campaign against them, and then convulsed in bloody mayhem for more than a decade.

An independent Iraqi Kurdistan is far more likely to be stable with U.S. backing than without it.

We Americans mounted a revolution for our own independence against a government far more liberal and enlightened than Iraq’s. And we support at least the notion of a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli state, the only properly functioning democracy in the entire region, despite the fact that the Palestinians have mounted one terrorist campaign after another for their own independence while the Kurds of Iraq never have.

An independent Iraqi Kurdistan is far more likely to be stable with American backing than without it, but the Kurds are going forward regardless. As Jack Nicholson’s character Frank Costello said in Martin Scorsese’s scorching film, The Departed, “no one gives it to you. You have to take it.”

Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at The Tower, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, and the author of seven books, including Where the West Ends and Tower of the Sun.

August 21, 2017 | 1 Comment »

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