Today the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq—which has been autonomous since the post-Saddam constitution was passed in 2005 and now comprises nearly one-third of Iraqi territory—will hold a referendum on the critical question of full independence from Iraq. The general consensus is that the Kurds will overwhelmingly vote yes, and while the results are are non-binding they will be very significant for Kurdish aspirations and ominous for Baghdad.
[Editor’s Note: Today The American Conservative presents both the case for and against Kurdish independence. See Daniel Larison’s case against the referendum going forward, here.]
The United States, despite the regional pressure not to, must support the Kurds’ bid for independence as it would be morally and ethically wrong for America to turn its backs on these people at this point.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly called Kurdish President Masoud Barzani on August 20 to request postponement, stating that destruction of ISIS must remain the top priority, and that any deviation at this time would hurt the effort. The same message was delivered on September 14 by Brett McGurk, U.S. Representative to the International Coalition of War Against ISIS, who met with Barzani. McGurk added that the U.S. would not support the referendum, suggesting it had no legal legitimacy.
Yet Barzani reiterated his own resolve last week, saying that the Kurdish government would not cave to international pressures:
From world war one until now, we are not a part of Iraq,” he told reporters. “It’s a theocratic, sectarian state. We have our geography, land and culture. We have our own language. We refuse to be subordinates.
The Kurds, since 1991, have consistently cooperated politically and militarily with Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington. These relations grew even stronger after the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. With the emergence of ISIS in 2014, U.S. support of Kurdistan grew to even greater levels. President Barack Obama went so far as to order bombing of ISIS positions in June 2014 when a major ISIS offensive threatened to overrun Erbil, the capital of KRG. U.S. aid for training and arms supply increased drastically.
With the election of President Donald Trump, the level of cooperation and supply continued because Kurdish fighters proved to be the most dynamic force against ISIS terrorists. Kurdish Peshmerga forces became an instrumental force in the fight against—and eventual defeat—of ISIS.
The lack of U.S. support for the referendum is not only wrong, but harmful to U.S.-Kurdish relations and could have adverse consequences on the war against ISIS. It may also negatively affect these four areas:
One: With the fall of Saddam in 2003, the Shia majority took control of the government. Despite heavy U.S. military and technical support, the Baghdad government gradually tilted towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iraqi Vice President Iyad Allawi has warned as recently as June about Iranian influence over the parliamentarian elections next year.
“Iran has been interfering even in the decision (making process) of the Iraqi people,” he told Reuters. “We don’t want an election based on sectarianism, we want an inclusive political process … we hope that the Iraqis would choose themselves without any involvement by any foreign power.”
In the Syrian crises, Baghdad followed Iran and Russia to support Damascus and other U.S. opponents. The Kurdish fighters have been the dominant force in the fight against ISIS. This has spared U.S. infantry from involvement in yet another fight.
Two: According to reports from the United Nations, since the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians from Baghdad and Mosul fled to Kurdistan for fear of persecution, arrest, or murder by ISIS. The population of Christians in Kurdistan increased four-fold. Other minorities such as Shabak, KKAII, and Izidi also sought refuge in Kurdistan. More than 800,000 Iraqi Arab Sunnis have taken refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. All of these minorities took refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. KRG, as well as the Kurdish people, have never discriminated against any religion or creed, and have given them full freedom to practice their religion. One can say that to support the Kurdish referendum would be to support the protection of religious minorities in Iraq.
Three: Basij and Quds forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran, along with Iraqi Shia militias, are trying to create a land corridor between Iran and Damascus through the city of Tal Afar, which has a considerable Shia population, near Mosul, and then through part of Sinjar, which is currently controlled by Iranian Basiji forces. Iran’s access to Syria via land means the establishment of a so-called Shia crescent. With U.S. support, an Independent Kurdistan would help prevent this additional foray of Iranian control in the region.
Four: The government of Turkey, led by an ever-powerful Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is gradually distancing itself from the United States. Turkey is a member of NATO and a longtime U.S. partner. However, in recent years under the leadership of the Development and Justice Party, their policies challenged U.S. interests. In 2015, after the failed coup in July, Erdoğan abandoned the policy of entering the European Union and has started tilting towards Russia.
Yes, Turkey is no friend of the Kurds. From the Turkish point of view, Kurds in Syria are closely connected to PKK. The Turks are aligned with Iran in this view. The Turks have gone so far as to bomb America’s Peshmerga allies in Syria. If Turkey continues to be an unreliable ally to the United States, with U.S. support, Kurdistan serve as a new and important balance in the region.
Furthermore, there is an existential bond between the U.S. and Kurdistan. The Kurds see a commonality between their own struggles and those that unfolded during the American War for Independence. They admire Thomas Jefferson and have a special affinity for George Washington.
Corruption aside, the Iraqi Kurds have made remarkable socio-economic progress in certain sectors since the establishment of KRG. Secular laws were adopted and implemented, and all ethnic and religious minorities work and collaborate in every sector of Kurdish society. There is an unprecedented degree of harmony that exists between Christians and all other ethnic groups living in the most secure region of the Middle East.
With the removal of Saddam in 2003, the U.S. inadvertently helped the Islamic Republic of Iran spread its power and influence in Iraq. Trump should not repeat the same calculated mistake here.
Ali Javanmardi is a Kurdish-American journalist living in Erbil and working as an international correspondent for Voice of America. His views are his own.