The Other Shoe Drops: Syrian Kurds Declare Independence

Erbil, Kurdistan (Northern Iraq)

Erbil, Kurdistan (Northern Iraq)

As my readers know, I have given ample warnings on how the Syrian Civil War would spiral out of control and potentially envelop the Middle East in a regional war.  A key piece holding the patchwork of post-Colonial, Mesopotamian nations together has been the acquiescence of the Kurdish populations living primarily in Northern Iraq, Syria, and Turkey remaining an ethnic minority in their respective adoptive nations.  The status quo changed last Tuesday when Syrian Kurds effectively declared their independence.  With Syrian Kurds declaring independence, a chain reaction has been initiated, which will most likely redraw the map of the Middle East and finalize the partitioning of Iraq into three independent nations.

This is not all bad news.  As I have written, the Kurds may be our best ally in the region.  Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) is the most stable and developed portion of Iraq with modern malls and high rise buildings one may be more accustomed to finding in Europe than the Middle East.  Further, they have access to the large oil fields around Kirkuk, have a functioning economy, growing trade, exercise religious tolerance and actively protect the Chaldean Christian minorities, and have been very willing to work with the US.  In fact, Kurdistan does not even require US citizens to have a visa to fly into their capital city of Erbil unlike Baghdad.  However, Kurdish autonomy won’t come without fueling the conflict already engulfing the Middle East.  For starters, the Iraqi government may allow Kurdistan to break away, but will fight to maintain control of the Kirkuk Oil Field.  This will not likely deter the Kurds because they have been presented with a rare historic opportunity created by the chaos in Syria.  Specifically, Al Qaeda (AQ) rebels fighting in Syria have seized most of Western Iraq and its major cities of Ramadi and Fallujah.  This has forced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to deploy Iraq’s military in the west where it has been, at least for now, defeated or bogged down by AQ forces.  This leaves al-Maliki few military options respective of dealing with the well-armed and effective Kurdish military and Peshmerga should the Iraqi Kurds declare independence as well.  Rather than split his military, al-Maliki will be forced to concentrate his forces just to protect Baghdad and will be forced to reluctantly allow Kurdistan to break away with much of the contested oil fields around Kirkuk.  It is important to also note that having the Kurds as an ally could prove decisive if the US is truly interested in toppling Assad.  The Kurds would make far better allies than AQ avowed rebels, which by the way are also enemies of the Kurds, and would require far less support.  The indigenous Kurdish forces would also be some of the most politically moderate in the American sense and pose far less a risk of blowback in the form of global terrorism or atrocities should they succeed and maintain a degree of autonomy and power in Syria.

In the likely event that Iraqi and Syrian Kurds unite to form a greater Kurdistan, Turkey will be placed in a difficult position.  Ethnic Kurds make up approximately 20% of Turkey’s population and no doubt will be interested in reuniting with their kinsmen.  Whether or not the ethnic pull is enough to actually cause Kurds in Turkey to want to break away is of question, but the fact it is a mere possibility is enough to give the Turkish Government nightmares.  Further, even if Kurdish Turks reject autonomy they will leverage the stronger and more unified Kurdish neighbors to their south to support more overt and aggressive demands for political concessions long denied by the Turkish government.  This alone will be enough to spawn more PKK terrorist operations and harsh government reprisals by Turkey.  As a member of NATO, this puts the US in a tough place because it has legitimate interests in both countries. The US is obligated to defend Turkey, but the Kurds have been one of our best allies in the region respective of Syria and Iraq.  Failure to develop policies to guide and mitigate this likely event will catch the US State Department flatfooted again and no doubt lead to poor policy action.

As the Middle East continues to descend into widespread regional violence, the US will not be able or possibly willing to deescalate the situation.  Nonetheless, the US will need to pick sides.  For starters, any alliance with AQ avowed rebels should be a non-starter even though current policy in the White House has hypocritically done just this in its shortsighted attempts to undermine Iran.  With 100% certainty, this policy alone will lead to the loss of American lives.  Respective of Iraq, unless the US is willing to conduct a major geopolitical realignment and side with al-Maliki and, by extension, Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia and its proxy war in Syria, this too will not be feasible in any substantive way.  That leaves the Kurds as a natural ally in the region.  They need us and we need them.  They occupy strategic terrain.  Further, unlike both Shia and Sunni Muslims, the Kurds have for the most part never attacked Americans and have genuinely protected Americans in Kurdistan.  This cannot be said for our Shia “allies” in Baghdad and certainly not of our Sunni “allies” loyal to or covertly sponsoring AQ.  However, the US will need to use its leverage with the Kurds to ensure Turkish security is not threatened and its long standing alliance with Turkey to make sure the Turks don’t launch a brutal crackdown that would enflame the Kurds.  In exchange for the Kurds leaving Turkey alone, the US could be free to recognize Kurdistan and place itself in a prime position to gain a foothold in the Middle East where Americans are truly welcomed and the atmosphere is western.  Failure to do this will leave the Kurds vulnerable to being massacred again and their land in control of people that are enemies of the US.  As such, it is incumbent on the US to take a proactive role toward Kurdish independence and be prepared to tactfully support and skillfully guide it when Kurdistan unites with the independent Kurds of Syria.

Considering the above, the US has the means to develop a positive policy for dealing with Kurdish independence where the US could considerably enhance its geopolitical standing in the region.  However, due to the effects of poor leadership, ignorance, and the pull of special interests, Washington, with near certainty, will take the worst possible policy toward the Kurds.  As such, unfortunately, I predict Washington will scuttle its policy toward the Kurds so bad that it effectively turns the Kurds into an unwilling enemy of the US and loses a golden opportunity to

build true allies in the Middle East.


By Guiles Hendrik

February 4, 2014, 2014

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