On September 22, the Kurds in Erbil, Suleimaniyah, Dohuk and Kirkuk voted overwhelmingly to secede from Iraq.
This has been a long time coming. With 28 million people, the Kurds are the largest stateless people on earth, their “nation” parceled out in pieces to despotic governments in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Roughly six million of them live in Iraq. The central government under Saddam Hussein’s genocidal regime murdered them by the hundreds of thousands with conventional and chemical weapons. After Saddam’s regime was demolished, the Kurds effectively retreated from the rest of Iraq and built the only properly functioning region in the country while the rest consumed itself in blood and fire.
They are the most staunchly pro-American and anti-Islamist people in the entire region by far and were, for a time, the only ones truly willing and able to take on ISIS and win. None of the Iraqi Kurdish parties and movements are terrorists. On the contrary, of the three largest ethno-religious groups in the country, the Kurds are the only ones who consistently resist terrorism in all its forms everywhere—not just in Iraq but everywhere else in the world.
Yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says their independence referendum is illegitimate. “The vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” he said.
Roughly three million people voted, and 92 percent of them chose independence. That number cannot be rigged. I visited Kurdistan four times during the war and never met a single person there who wished to remain in Iraq. Only foreigners refer to their part of the country as “Northern Iraq” rather than “Kurdistan.” You’re all but guaranteed to be chastised if you refer to the place as “Iraq” within earshot of the locals. Rigging an independence vote in such an environment makes about as much sense as the Democrats in the United States rigging an election against the Republicans in San Francisco. What on earth would be the point? If anything, a 92 percent “yes” vote is low, and it’s only that “low” because the ethnically mixed Kirkuk Governate was included this time around.
Kurdistan is a nation in all but name while Iraq is a nation in name only. Iraq isn’t really even a country. It’s a map and a geographic abstraction. Baghdad, from the Kurds’ point of view, is a foreign capital home to terrorists, deranged militias, dictators and war criminals.
If Middle Easterners drew their own borders rather than French and British imperialists, Iraq wouldn’t even exist. (Nor would Syria, for that matter.) The yearning for an independent Kurdistan dates back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I, roughly the same time Arab and Turkish nationalisms were born. Back then, the League of Nations promised Kurdish autonomy, but they were cruelly shackled to Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, three of which went on to produce mass-murdering totalitarian regimes and terrorists armies. Of course the Kurds want out. Under what theory would they want to stay? Saying their referendum on the question isn’t legitimate, as Rex Tillerson does, is a despicable lie made doubly despicable by the fact that the Kurds are our friends.
Their enemies, predictably, are turning the screws. Iran ordered a fuel embargo, Iraq’s federal government is closing the borders with all flights into and out of international airports in Erbil and Suleimaniyah grounded by the Civil Aviation Authority. If you’re willing to visit or work in Iraqi Kurdistan because it’s far safer than the rest of the country (and it is), you’re out of luck. Now you’ll have to travel through Baghdad and risk a run-in with the head-choppers. Turkey has also halted fuel shipments, is threatening military intervention, and its deranged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says blocking Kurdish independence in Iraq is “a matter of survival.”
Iraqi Kurdistan does not threaten anybody’s survival. Iraq’s Kurds have never invaded anybody, have no interest in invading anybody, and have never supported terrorists or militias on anyone else’s territory, and especially not on their own.
No other group of people in the entire world gets blockaded this way for declaring independence—not the South Ossetians or the Abkhaz in Georgia, the Crimeans in Ukraine, the Albanians in Kosovo or anyone else. Only the Kurds get treated this way, because their part of the world is even more wretched than the post-Soviet space. They’re getting kicked in the stomach by their belligerent neighbors—again—and Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson are siding with the belligerents, none of which are true friends and one of which is an enemy.
Yes, backing Kurdish independence would make life more complicated for the United States in the Middle East than it already is. Even so, how small the United States has become since the days of the Cold War. When the colossal Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin in an attempt to snuff out the small Western enclave, the Truman Administration launched the Berlin Airlift and delivered millions of tons of cargo—food, medicine, fuel—over the course of a year.
Backing Kurdish independence wouldn’t require anything like the Berlin Airlift. Turkey, for all its faults, is not Soviet Russia. It’s not a superpower, it’s a regional power. It isn’t interested in conquering the world. It can’t blow up the planet or fight long foreign wars far from its borders. It is not attempting in starve Kurdistan out and couldn’t even if it wanted to. On the contrary,Turkey has had good relations with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government now for almost ten years. It could choose, with a bit of pressure from the United States and from Europe, to maintain those good relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government if it’s sovereign rather than simply autonomous. It’s the same entity regardless, and it’s already de-facto sovereign.
Either way, the Kurds are far better friends of the United States than Turkey or Iraq ever have been or ever will be.
Foreign Affairs magazine editor Gideon Rose and French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy debated this question on CNN last weekend. Rose backs what he called a “realist” anti-Kurdish foreign policy while the “idealist” Henri-Levi supports them. One could just as easily make a “realist” case for the Kurds. By punishing our friends and taking the sides of enemies and non-friends, the mathematically predictable result is the empowerment of our enemies at the expense of our friends—the inverse of what foreign policy is supposed to accomplish.
To be sure, Turkey is part of the NATO alliance while the Kurds aren’t, so Turkey counts as a “friend” in that sense, but as I argued last week, if Turkey weren’t already in NATO, it would not be admitted. Not only is it threatening our allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, its forging closer ties with Iran and Russia and purchasing a missile defense system from Moscow. Until recently, it effectively supported ISIS in Syria. Turkey is a second-class member at best and needs to be treated accordingly. If it can’t handle Americans pursuing American values and American interests, it is welcome to leave.
Part of the problem here, I suspect, is Trump’s disgraced former national security advisor Mike Flynn, who worked as a paid foreign agent for Turkey even after he joined the Trump campaign. He was Trump’s Rasputin for a while, when Trump was still a blank slate. I can’t say for certain what he told Trump about Turkey and its increasingly creepy and hostile President Erdogan, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that he didn’t tell his boss that backing the Kurds is in America’s interests. We know that Flynn opposed the Obama administration’s arming of the Kurds in Syria to fight ISIS because Erdogan didn’t like it, and he tried to delay the plan to retake the city of Raqqa from ISIS on Erdogan’s behalf. The Turks paid Flynn more than half a million dollars to lobby for their interests inside the Trump campaign and the White House.
As for Rex Tillerson, he probably isn’t corrupt. He was just busy running an oil company rather than studying up on the fraught dynamic between Arabs, Persians, Turks and Kurds in the Middle East.
Trump himself, meanwhile, boasts that Erdogan is his “friend” just like the previous occupant of the White House did. At least Erdogan hadn’t yet begun the Stalinist phase of his rule when Barack Obama foolishly trusted the wrong man in the region.
The White House almost certainly understands that a successful foreign policy rewards friends and punishes enemies, but the president can’t even get that right if he doesn’t know who his friends and enemies are.
Kurdistan is so unique in the Middle East that it almost seems to exist in some kind of alternate universe. It’s by far the most pro-American and pro-Western place in the region, even more so than Israel. (It is also, for what it’s worth, staunchly pro-Israel, which sets it even farther apart from its neighbors.) Over and over again I heard from its people, including government officials, that they want the United States to build permanent military bases there. I even heard, more than once, requests that Iraqi Kurdistan join the union as the 51st state. These people are more reliable allies even than Europeans, yet because people and nations that don’t like us—even hate us—want the Kurds to be kept under the boot, we’re going along with it.
“I ask Americans not to leave us,” Kurdish Peshmerga Colonel Salahdin Ahmad Ameen said to me in his office some years ago while most of Iraq was on fire. “From 1920 until now, we have been frustrated and disappointed by their pledges and promises. Eight times we have been disappointed. I ask the American people, do not make it nine.”
Sorry, Colonel. Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson and Mike Flynn just made it nine.