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Why Backing Kurdish Independence Still Doesn’t Make Sense

Carving out a new state creates a number of new problems for U.S. policy and doesn't do much to solve existing ones.
kurdistan kurd flag

Peter Weber means well here, but this is a bad idea:

If Obama wants to get ahead of ominous developments in Syria for once, he should consider throwing U.S. support behind an independent Kurdistan, one that is carved out from the decaying husks of Syria and Iraq.

The problems with backing an independent Kurdistan are well-known. The short version is that backing the creation of such a state would put the U.S. in the position of guaranteeing the independence of a new client against its neighbors, all of whom would be hostile to its existence to some degree. Because of Turkey’s fear of a reviving Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), U.S. support for independent Kurdistan would put the U.S. and Turkey on a collision course and might very well trigger Turkish military action against the new state. If that seems unlikely, remember that Turkey is already launching airstrikes on Kurdish targets in Iraq and “joined” the war on ISIS mostly because it was alarmed about Kurdish gains in Syria. Imagine how much more alarmed it would by the formal creation of a new Kurdish state. The Iraqi and Syrian governments aren’t likely to accept a new state “carved out” of their territory, and it is doubtful that Iran would be indifferent to something that undermines these governments. If the U.S. were seen as instrumental in the creation of an independent Kurdistan, that could also make it an attractive target for terrorists hostile to the U.S. Depending on the terms of the relationship with Washington, the U.S. might find itself obliged to defend the new state, and that would be yet another security commitment for the U.S. to fulfill.

In exchange for all that, creating an independent Kurdistan would probably not yield that many benefits, at least not for the U.S. or the war on ISIS. Weber presents it as providing the U.S. with “a base of operations in a country that has invited its help,” but once an independent Kurdistan is established the new state would probably be concerned with securing itself and would be less inclined to join itself to the U.S. war effort. The new Kurdistan would probably not be recognized by that many other states, since its creation will almost certainly have come over the objections of the governments in Baghdad and Damascus. All the states that are wary of encouraging their own separatist and nationalist movements would likely be against recognizing the new state, which would leave the new state as a sort of semi-pariah on the international stage. Once independence has been achieved, it is also possible that internal rivalries between different Kurdish factions would lead to a conflict over control of the new state, and that would leave the U.S. with the task of trying to resolve a new civil war. Carving out a new state creates a number of new problems for U.S. policy and doesn’t do much to solve existing ones. It would leave the U.S. with a long-term commitment to sustain the new state that it helped create for the hope for a short-term fix for a war the U.S. shouldn’t even be fighting. Even if doing this provided “a rare moment of positive feeling about its mideast policy” (which is not a good reason to do anything of this magnitude), that feeling would likely evaporate soon thereafter because of the many headaches that it would cause.

If all this sounds unduly pessimistic, I would point out that the skeptics of drastic action and sudden political change have been proven much more right than wrong over the last decade. In any case, it is necessary to consider the consequences of such a major political change as fully as possible. One of the reasons that the U.S. finds itself in its absurd position in its war with ISIS is that the policy was never thought through or debated at any length, and the U.S. plunged into an unnecessary war in two countries without considering what came next. Plunging ahead with another ill-considered policy in a panicked attempt to “get ahead of ominous developments” is the last thing that the U.S. should be doing now. It would better if it reconsidered the merits of its original decision to intervene and scaled back its goals to match what it is actually prepared to commit to this part of the world. Midwifing a new state in the midst of regional upheaval and conflict is far more than the U.S. is going to be prepared to do over the coming years, and it would better for all concerned not to start down that path.



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