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The Exceptionally Weak Case for Kurdistan

Shlomo Ben-Ami urges [1] the Trump administration to back Kurdish independence. His reasoning seems especially weak here:

As the experience in Yugoslavia showed, when ethnic or religious cleavages explode, the most effective path to peace may well be separation. And a Kurdish state has a real chance of thriving: an independent Kurdistan could manage to combine natural-resource wealth with a tradition of stable and pragmatic governance, thereby creating a sustainable democracy. This would amount to a win for pro-Western forces in the Middle East.

Applying “the experience in Yugoslavia” to other parts of the world is wrongheaded in a few ways. For one thing, the “experience in Yugoslavia” shows that the government that is losing control of territory will violently oppose secessionist movements. It may eventually lose, but not before hundreds of thousands of people have died and many more have been forced to flee. For another, ethnic and religious cleavages don’t simply “explode.” They are usually ignited on purpose by demagogues that want to exploit those cleavages to their advantage. Ben-Ami thinks the U.S. should help set off the explosion in this case. That is typical of Western advocates of partition-as-panacea, but it is irresponsible and dangerous.

Ben-Ami asserts that “Iraq is effectively an Iranian trusteeship, not a US ally.” That is an exaggeration, but if it were true that would make the case for an independent Kurdistan even weaker. If Iraq were little more than an “Iranian trusteeship,” do you suppose Iran would accept having a large part of its territory to be turned into a new state? No, they would back the Iraqi government in its efforts to retain that territory. Since Ben-Ami frames the creation of Kurdistan as an explicitly anti-Iranian maneuver, that suggests that Iranian hostility to the new state would be even more likely.

Backing the creation of a new state at the expense of another will inevitably produce more violence and upheaval, and when that conflict is defined primarily in ethnic or religious terms that violence will take the form of massacres and driving people from their homes. What Ben-Ami fails to mention is that the “path to peace” brought about through separation typically involves a great deal of bloodletting and forcible expulsion of populations. Even when this “works” as intended, it usually creates dysfunctional statelets that are held hostage by corrupt and abusive leaders.

The KRG is already notoriously corrupt and its leaders semi-authoritarian at best [2], so the idea that it would become a “sustainable democracy” is little more than wishful thinking. Regardless, U.S. policy in Iraq over the last fourteen years should prove that the U.S. has neither the competence nor the necessary political influence to secure an independent Kurdistan without causing a new destabilizing conflict. The U.S. shouldn’t be in the business of helping to carve up existing states, and in general partition is a terrible “solution” that should be attempted only as an absolute last resort.

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10 Comments To "The Exceptionally Weak Case for Kurdistan"

#1 Comment By Marcus Jay On August 7, 2017 @ 11:53 am

I’m all for Kurdish independence in the same way I’m for all people having the right to peacefully secede and form their own countries. However, that doesn’t mean that we should sugarcoat what these countries may look or act. I think we should urge them to secede and wish them well, but that’s all.

#2 Comment By a spencer On August 7, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

“a tradition of stable and pragmatic governance”

I’m not sure any Kurd would say that.

Perhaps Ben Ami isn’t familiar with A. M. Hamilton’s road? Constructed 90 years ago – Hamilton wrote a whole book about it, pretty sure he didn’t consider it a “stable” place – he hoped his road would unite people in trade and administration. Of course, it didn’t and led to more fighting over who controlled the road.

It was only 20 years ago the Kurds fought a civil war.

And its land-locked. Nothing wrong with that per se, but fractious relations with neighbors certainly wouldn’t help it.

Of course, independent Kurdistan has been a long term project of neocons, so this pursuit isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

#3 Comment By MEexpert On August 7, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

The only country that benefits from an independent Kurdistan is Israel. Igniting the ethnic battles in each country of the Middle East, makes Israel maintain its hegemony in the area. Having an independent Kurdistan is the first step towards dividing Iraq further into Sunni and Shia Iraq. Then there will be a movement by the Syrian, Iranian, and Turkish Kurds to separate from their respective countries to join with the newly created Kurdistan, creating further chaos in the region. None of those countries will allow this to happen.

#4 Comment By a spencer On August 7, 2017 @ 2:22 pm

sorry for the double post.

Who can forget John Dolan’s account of his time at the American University of Iraq (Sulaimaniya):


#5 Comment By Will Harrington On August 7, 2017 @ 2:46 pm

Of course, all of the arguments against an independent Kurdistan were equally applicable concerning the independence of certain British colonies in the late eighteenth century. Good US policy would be the same in Kurdistan as in most of the Middle East, let other people solve their own problems and ride herd on Turkey so NATO doesn’t get drug in.

#6 Comment By a spencer On August 7, 2017 @ 2:49 pm

sorry, again, bad formatting on my part. I’ll understand if I’m spiked. 🙂

John Dolan’s account of his time at the American University of Iraq – Sulaimaniya is worth looking up.

China’s international role has been getting more play on TAC recently, deservedly so. When I was in Suli shortly after it opened up, there were already five Chinese restaurants. Some of them had been there for a while. “Where are the Americans?”, I was asked.

#7 Comment By Jay C On August 7, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

Yes, Ben-Ami’s “reasoning” is especially weak here: “wishful thinking” is about the most-charitable explanation one can concoct. He starts out by noting (correctly) that “Kurdish” lands are divided up among five different countries: but sort-of hastily has conclude that only the Iraqi bits are the only likely part to form the illusory “Kurdistan” out of, and then goes on to either just ignore some countries with Kurds in them (Armenia, Iran), hand-wave away Syria, and indulge in what can only be described as willful fantasizing about Turkey (“Even Turkey may be willing to accept such an outcome” SRSLY?).
Oh, and also assume that the Iraqi government will just shrug away the separation of their territory, and start naming ambassadors?

An independent, reasonably “pro-Western” Kurdistan might be a useful addition to the ‘family of nations”, but it isn’t going to get here via grandiose necon neo-imperialism.

#8 Comment By John Beech On August 8, 2017 @ 7:45 am

I expect Turkey to have something to say about this. In Syria there are 3 provinces involved with YPG (the Kurds we back). And of course PKK is exceptionally strong in Sinjar province (Iraq) as well. Who in their right mind sees anything other than millions involved in a further refugee crisis if this comes about – and what about the 3 million Syrians in Turkey stirring up dissent civil discord by their mere presence? That said, if any group deserves to be a ‘stan’ it’s the Kurds who suffered genocide once before at the hands of the Turks (and will be recipients of the pointed end of the sick again before this is over). Thus, politically, I support Kurd efforts despite the certain havoc it will wreck with our NATO ally and what it mean for Washington policy driving Ankara into Russia’s welcoming arms. There are no good choices here either – heavy sigh.

#9 Comment By b. On August 8, 2017 @ 6:01 pm

Ben-Ami is not arguing in good faith.

The Balkans have left an impression on Russia in general and Putin specifically. Bush’s Georgia encountered the blowback in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the echoes have ranged as far as China. China and Russia are united in their core objection to US policy since Clinton’s Balkan moves, amplified by regime change declarations, and illegal aggressive war in Iraq, Libya, Syria etc. Russia and China see the US – with justification – as the prime mover in international politics eroding the sovereignty of existing nation states to the point of eroding the very concept and the foundations of Westphalia. Fragmentation of e.g. Iraq and/or Syria will not be perceived as another attempt to “spread democracy” or create a stable, sovereign nation, it will be perceived as another evolution of the “scorched earth” approach to a divide-and conquer Middle East (and Africa, and Asia, and, as the current “Russia!” hysteria demonstrates, a long wished-for breakup of the largest contiguous nation state on Earth).

Pax Americana has become the incessant disruption of sovereign nations, amplifying their internal crises and rendering them dysfunctional, in a full spectrum push to set back potential peer competitors and even independent national actors. The issue is no longer alignment, or lack thereof – any nation capable of defending its sovereign borders against the US is a potential target.

#10 Comment By Hawre On August 10, 2017 @ 12:11 pm

The significant obstacle against Kurdistan independence is Barzani, i am kurdish, the agreement between KRG and Turkey for buying kurdish natural resources for fifty years, and Turkey has more than ten military base in the KRG, so it is for twelve years Brazani has controled the power of kurdistan with his sons and nephews,