Last week at Yale Jackson Institute, we held a conference with Justice for Kurds, an advocacy group that seeks to raise awareness for the Kurdish cause. My panel focused on whether there should be a new US Strategy for Syria, Iraq and the Kurds. In other words, should the US help facilitate a Kurdish state?
I started working in Kurdistan before the US toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Like most journalists and aid workers I know who’ve have spent time there, I’ve always believed that the Kurds, like all stateless people, deserve the right to self-determination.
But I also foresee a confrontation with Turkey, possibly a military one, if the US supported their independence. Iraq wouldn’t be happy about it, nor would the Iranians or the Syrians. The only neighbour who might benefit is Israel, which has been doing deals with the Kurds for years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported the referendum for independence in 2017, as well as the establishment of a Kurdish state. There’s a strategy to this; Israel isn’t doing it to be magnanimous. It wants a bulwark and ally on the Iranian border. There are also some 200,000 Kurdish Jews in Israel.
As for US involvement, it is a question of allegiance. During the fight against ISIS I was reporting from the Kurdish front lines. I watched the Peshmerga’s tenacity fighting alongside international forces after Iraqi troops melted away following the fall of Mosul in 2014. So when President Donald Trump made the disastrous decision to pull troops out of the Syrian-Turkish border in October 2019, leaving the Kurds to face the consequences alone, I joined most of my colleagues in calling out Trump’s disloyalty and moral cowardice.
But I was also in Erbil in September 2017 for the referendum. A reported 93 per cent of voters were in favour of a separate state, but it was clear that President Masoud Barzani had pushed through the vote without listening to the warnings of his neighbours and the US, who were all urging caution. There were too many objections in the region for them ever to attain independence - at least at that stage. Syria, Turkey and Iran were all concerned that the vote would trigger secessionist movements. Even close advisors of Mr Barzani were confused as to why he pushed for it so early.
As feared, the referendum backfired. The federal government in Baghdad declared it illegal and promptly closed the airport in Erbil, shutting off the region from the rest of the world. Neighbours denounced it. Instead of boosting Kurdish power in future deal-making, it caused a direct military confrontation with Iraq. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were humiliated when Iraqi troops pushed them out of the oil-rich Kirkuk province. It is estimated that the Kurds lost around 40 per cent of the territory that they had taken after the fall of ISIS.
Watching the crackdown by Israeli authorities in Sheikh Jarrah against Palestinians during these past few days has made me think about self-determination. I do believe that the Kurds should, and one day will, have their own state. But it is not going to happen in the foreseeable future, and most likely not without US assistance.
America is not on board, or at least not for now. Their memory of the debacle of the 2003 Iraq invasion is too raw. President Biden’s team is more focused on China these days than it is on the Middle East. Mr Biden wants to end wars, as he shown in Afghanistan, rather than risk outright confrontation with Turkey.
This leaves the Kurds adrift. They are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. They should have been granted their country after the First World War when several countries were carved out of former empires. The international community owes them allegiance and assistance. But there must be a pragmatic road map and timeline, and negotiations must include neighbours. Hollow promises will not work, such as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s letter that promised things that the US could never implement.
At this stage I can’t imagine Baghdad wanting to go down that road, although there are those who argue that the Iraqi constitution in its current form would be stronger if Kurdistan were independent.
Perhaps one of the most illuminating quotes from our conference at Yale came from Ken Pollock, now at the American Enterprise Institute and a long-time Iraq and Gulf expert, who once worked as a military analyst for the CIA. Mr Pollock is strongly in favour of US support for a potential Kurdish state, but he admits that "self-determination is good for international affairs, but not for international law".
My takeaway from the conference was that sentimentality and romanticism, including my own, has to be tempered when it comes to Kurdistan. In order to obtain independence, there must be wide regional support. Without it, the Kurds risk economic isolation, a potentially besieged country and hostile neighbours.
Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and the author of the upcoming The Vanishing: The Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets