• Kurdistan Independence Referendum: Fuse for Iraq War 4.0, and What Might Have Been

    October 5, 2017 // 1 Comment »

    Free Iraqi Child

    It was all a terrible, terrible waste. There were plenty of worthy markers along the way, but history loves a signature event, so let it be September 25, 2017, the day of the Kurdish independence referendum. That overwhelmingly “yes” vote to someday, somehow break away from Iraq will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections in October.


    The referendum, coupled with the ongoing decimation of Iraq’s Sunni minority population (with the destruction of Mosul in summer 2017 as its signature event), means “Iraq” no longer in practice exists. In its place is a Shiite state dominated by Iran, a new nation in all but name called Kurdistan, and a shrinking population of Sunnis tottering between annihilation or reservation-like existence, depending on whether the United States uses the last of its influence to sketch out the borders or abandons the Sunnis to fate.

    The waste comes in that a better version of all this was available around 2006. Every life (estimates are of some one million Iraqi dead, plus those 4,424 Americans), every dollar (the cost is in the trillions), and every unanticipated outcome (the rise of Islamic State, conflict in Syria) since then is part of the waste.


    The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement created modern Iraq, dividing up Arab lands that had been part the Ottoman Empire. A key goal of the era, creating Kurdistan, never happened. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres left an opening for a referendum on Kurdish independence. The referendum never took place, a victim of fighting that saw the Turkish people separate themselves from the remains of the Ottoman Empire and fight for two years to prevent the dismantling of what is now modern Turkey. The result is 30 million Kurds now scattered across parts of modern Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

    No one at the time of Sykes-Picot could have imagined the Kurds would wait over 80 years for the United States to show up under the false flag of post-9/11 retribution to create the conditions for a modern referendum.


    The 2003 American invasion, arguably the single worst foreign policy decision since WWII, destroyed all civil order in Iraq. American failures opened the door to massive Iranian influence, such that a pro-Iranian government was installed in 2010 under the passivity of an America in retreat anxious for the illusion of stability. Iran and its Iraqi Shiite allies manipulated chaos into opportunity and began a process of political marginalization followed by direct ongoing violence against Iraqi Sunnis. That in turn created an opening for a Sunni protector, Islamic State, to replace the scattered al Qaeda.

    The situation facing the United States at that point was grim. While then President Obama seemed content to accept a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad in return for enough stability to maintain the false impression at home that America had at least “not lost” in Iraq, he could not accept a powerful Islamic State holding territory in northern and western Iraq, threatening Baghdad. When the Iraqi national army dropped its weapons, broke, and ran in 2014, and local Shiite militias proved too weak to fill the breach, Obama reinserted the U.S. military into Iraq, saving the Kurds with air power to then repurpose those fighters against Islamic State.

    It kind of worked: the Kurds, with American help, blunted Islamic State’s progress in the south, and retook territory in the north. The problem was that while American diplomacy, the carrot-and-stick of aid, and difficulty of maintaining long-distance logistics saw the Kurdish forces replaced by Shiite militias in some locations, the Kurds held their gains in the north. Victorious and blooded, they were not about to go home empty handed. The Kurds’ need for American arms did force them to postpone an independence referendum in 2014 opposed by Washington. However, three years later with Islamic State mortally weakened, Washington no longer holds that sway over Kurdish ambitions.

    The ground truth in autumn 2017 — a referendum-endorsed Kurdistan in the the north, a Shiite state in the south, a marginalized Sunni population out west — is pretty much the deal that could have been had in 2006, albeit now for a 2017 price.


    In 2006 then-senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joe Biden proposed Iraq be divided into three separate regions: Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni. Biden wanted the United States to broker the deal and leave behind a “residual force to combat terrorists and keep the neighbors honest.” A peacekeeping force of Americans that would impose itself between Sunni, Shiites, and Kurds, while keeping outsiders like Islamic State at bay. The Senate actually passed a resolution in 2007 supporting Biden’s idea.

    It probably would have stabilized the region. The Middle East in 2006 was a very different place than in 2017.

    In 2006 Iran faced an American military as yet unsullied by a decade more of grinding war. That military sat on both Iran’s western border with Iraq, and eastern border with Afghanistan. The Iranian nuclear program was years behind where it is today, leaving Iran’s ability to intercede in Iraq minimal. Syria in 2006 was a relatively stable place under not-then-yet-enemy of the free world Bashar al-Assad; indeed, there was some hope the young Assad might be a minor reformer. Turkey was stable, a recognized albeit reluctant NATO ally. Russia was not in 2006 a major player in the Middle East. Many of 2017’s regional genies were thus still in the bottle.

    By Middle Eastern standards security would have been a manageable proposition via a modest American military presence. Alongside this, America would have realized its long-sought enduring bases in Iraq and could have decoupled its Islamic State-forward Syrian policy from Iraq. Never mind the savings of all those lives and all that money.


    Instead, the rough play of the last decade has brought us to a worse place on the ground in Iraq at much greater cost. The ten years has also torn apart the regions surrounding Iraq such that Kurdish independence being a source of stability has greatly diminished. There are now new questions: in 2017 and beyond, will an empowered Iran push back against the Kurds? Will an engorged, nationalistic Turkey politically distant from NATO go to war over disputed borderlands with Kurdistan? Will the Kurds, emboldened by their victories and aware of America’s weaker position try to hold territory they now occupy in Syria? Will the Russians, newly returned to the neighborhood, look for opportunities? Will Israel, who backs Kurdish independence as part of its search for allies, seek a bigger role in the ongoing conflicts?

    Who will control the disputed flashpoint city of Kirkuk? And what will become of the oil reserves held by the land-locked Kurds? That question is key to the future of Kurdistan, as the government there is some $20 billion in debt with oil as its primary export.


    Alongside these questions, the American military, once with the chance of a role similar to that played in former Yugoslavia, instead will exist as a crumple zone among the forces of its own warring semi-allies. Imagine American forces trapped between Turk and Kurd fighters, all three sides armed by the United States, on a scale dwarfing the so-far quickly deconflicted skirmishes now happening inside Syria. Such a scenario tells the tale of what might have been in 2006 when the United States could have managed events, and 2017, when Americans can do little more than witness them.

    Kurdish independence — the 2017 version — is a fuse waiting to ignite the next phase of Mesopotamia sorting itself out. Call it the end of Iraq War 3.0, and the start of the next version.




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    Posted in Iran, Iraq, Syria

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