Since the Sykes-Picot Agreement—when the Kurdish region of the Middle East was divided between modern Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran in 1916—the Kurds have been seeking their own autonomous region. After the fall of Saddam Hussein and the more recent retreat of the Islamic State (ISIS), there is a unique political moment. On September 25, the Kurds will hold a referendum for their independence, and it is likely they will vote “yes.” However, this is not binding, making the actual future of an independent Kurdish state unknown. Additionally, there are several unanswered questions which make the viability of a Kurdish state questionable. This process gives the United States a unique opportunity to offer Kurds guidance and provide stability to the whole country of Iraq and the greater region as they transition after ISIS.
To better understand this situation, last August I traveled to Erbil in Northern Iraq. A city of approximately 1 million left untouched by ISIS and Kurdistan’s de facto capital, Erbil is a bustling metropolis with nice restaurants, hotels, shopping malls, movie theaters, and even a local waterpark. Even though ISIS is fighting in Mosul just 45 minutes down the highway, here women and children are free to roam the streets, and Christians and Muslims live in harmonious coexistence.
To some, a free Kurdistan seems like the next logical step in post-ISIS Iraq. Oftentimes, scholars refer to Kurdistan as a nation without a state. In fact, Kurds already see themselves as their own nation. Local Kurds said to me, “This is not Iraq; this is Kurdistan.” Moreover, the Kurds are already operating as an independent government with its own functioning military.
According to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG, the regional government in Iraq), the Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) lost 1,700 with 10,000 wounded during the fight against ISIS. More importantly, most of the lower-ranked Peshmerga fought for no pay and have continued to stand guard at checkpoints without salaries. They have lost much and believe they deserve much in return.
Beneath the surface, the viability of an independent Kurdistan is questionable, and the impending process is riddled with disagreements and unknowns that may lead to the region’s next violent civil war. For this reason, the United States should partner with both Erbil and Baghdad to arbitrate some of the disagreements between the two governments as well as mitigate conflicts within Kurdish power centers. Thankfully, the KRG is eager to work with the US to solve the issues.
During a phone conversation in early August, Secretary Tillerson congratulated KRG President Masoud Barzani for the Peshmerga’s success during the fight against ISIS and expressed America’s concerns with the impending referendum. However, Barzani has said he is committed to holding the referendum despite American requests to postpone it. As the September 25 vote approaches, it is essential that the United States continues to pressure the KRG to delay the referendum so that proper negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil can take place, though the US cannot completely abandon the process in protest. Both the KRG and Baghdad need American involvement to ensure stability and a smooth transition. If proper negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad do not arbitrate areas of disagreement, an independent Kurdistan would likely lead to more instability.
First, Baghdad and Erbil need to discuss the presence of militia forces in the liberated Iraqi regions of Nineveh and Sinjar. In both cases, the land is disputed and controlled by different militias with competing interests. Their future and conflicting agendas must be addressed to ensure a post-ISIS Iraq and an independent Kurdistan do not become a hotbed of civil war and violence. Without resolution of these issues, Islamic State could return just months after its defeat.
If Kurdistan were to become its own country, resource sharing agreements and financial commitments between Erbil, Baghdad, and neighbors like Iran and Turkey would need to be renegotiated. Financially, Kurdistan expects to take over 17 percent of the country’s oil wealth, but no discussions have taken place over whether this means they will accept 17 percent of Iraq’s debt. Additionally, decades-old water sharing agreements between Baghdad and Turkey over access to the Tigris River would have to be re-discussed. Even more crucial, conflicts between Kurdish political parties also exist over oil sharing. Debt, resource disagreements, and illegitimate financial institutions strengthen the argument against a free Kurdistan at this time.
Moreover, President Barzani has declined to give up power twice already, citing instability and the fight against ISIS as justification for preventing a power transition. Similarly, parliament has not convened for nearly two years. In November, the United States and other partners must monitor the scheduled parliamentary elections, which will demonstrate how committed the Barzani family is to a legitimate democracy. The US could use these elections as a policy benchmark for offering American support for the independence initiative.
Referencing the impending Kurdish referendum, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Kurdistan is not ready for independence. Erdogan’ position makes sense for his country. Turkey has been fighting the PKK, separatist Kurdish militants based in Turkey, on their southeastern border for decades. In the same statement, he alluded that other independence movements may follow. Erdogan fears that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would not only embolden other local separatist movements, which jeopardizes his own country’s territorial integrity, but would also become a safe haven for PKK militants. Other regional neighbors share similar concerns.
The Kurdish initiative may be shortsighted, but the United States’ understanding of the greater geopolitical implications of the process gives the US the knowledge to assist the KRG during the coming months. Weeks ago Barzani was not backing away from the referendum. However, he recently announced that he is willing to delay the referendum until late 2018 if there are guarantees from Baghdad and the United States. It is evident the Kurds desire Americans to step in and offer to arbitrate disagreements and mitigate violence. They know that American favor legitimizes their independence, giving the United States a unique opportunity to motivate the KRG to not only arbitrate disagreements with leverage, but also pressure the Kurds to insert stronger language into the new Kurdish Constitution, which guarantees protection for religious minorities living in their territories. Currently, the constitution has limited language favoring pluralism, religious freedom, and human rights, but the language is weak and has no guarantees. In addition, the US can offer accountability to ensure the police force abides by the new laws.
This is a unique opportunity for the US to support a government as it transitions towards democracy and becomes a viable Middle Eastern partner within a region of chaos. An environment where militias with competing interests operate on land that is not theirs, coupled with failing economic institutions and corruption, is fertile ground for extremist movements and groups like the Islamic State to re-emerge. Involving itself in the Kurdish referendum process by offering arbitration for disagreements concerning land and resource disputes, overseeing elections, and pressuring the KRG to draft stronger constitutional language protecting human rights gives the United States government an opportunity to not only prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State, but also invest in a regional partner committed to pluralism, democracy, and freedom.
Andrew Larsen is a senior at Wake Forest University. This semester he will be studying abroad in Jordan and studying Arabic full time. Over the summer he worked as an intern for retired Congressmen Frank Wolf, Tony Hall, and Joe Pitts to advance the cause of human rights and religious freedom around the world. In the spring Andrew will be working on his senior thesis, which will be a comparative study on the effectiveness of authoritarianism in the Middle East.
Photo Credit: Flags of the United States, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan on display during a meeting between Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani, at the Kurdish White House on April 22, 2016. Dunford was visiting Iraq to assess the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. DoD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro.