As most Americans are aware, the Islamic State (ISIS) has a strong foothold in Syria and western Iraq. However, most U.S. citizens are woefully under-informed as to the actual status of Middle Eastern affairs. ISIS is engaged in armed conflict on several fronts throughout the Middle East, however the most significant and perhaps the most worthy of American attention is the Kurdish theater.
Kurdish independence a threat to ISIS
Kurdistan is a region in northern Iraq that has been a target of several ISIS offensives in 2015 and 2016. The reason for this is likely that the Kurds, unlike most other parts of the Middle East, have a robust independence movement. This is due to having a common language and a strong, unique cultural background very different from the people of southern Iraq. The peshmerga, a loosely organized group of Kurdish fighters, have consistently been capable of fending off the ISIS offensives. For this reason, ISIS views Kurdistan as a threat to their expansion across the country.
Already the Kurds have their own regional government and have directed the peshmerga to enforce a pseudo-border in Iraq in their fight against ISIS. Unfortunately, there are several roadblocks to Kurdish statehood, the largest of which is the fact that Kurdish claims would certainly conflict with the present borders of Turkey. Eastern Turkey is home to approximately 12 million Kurds. With Turkey being a member of NATO, it is unlikely that United States would support an independence movement that directly threatens the interests of one of its allies.
Kurdistan statehood as pressure on Turkey
However, there is a compelling case to be made for American support of Kurdish independence. Turkey is going through some very tumultuous times as of late. Erdogan, Turkey’s iron-fisted president, has been a source of division across the country. Erdogan appeals greatly to conservative Muslims in the West but is woefully unpopular in the East. More recently the military, widely regarded as being the “guardian of the secular Constitution”, attempted a coup against Erdogan. When the military of a country the United States is part of a military alliance with attempts a coup, that should be a signal that it might be time to find a new regional ally.
Kurdish independence would put severe pressure on Turkey, which may lead to the fall of Erdogan and the rise of a more secular leader willing to unite with the Kurds against the threat of ISIS. This idea of using a separatist movement to generate political leverage is nothing new. It should be noted that the United States has supported regional independence movements in the past for exactly this reason, the most recent case being Kosovo. The United States went so far as to use military options with other NATO states to help effectively establish the Republic of Kosovo.
A hands-off, “moral support” approach to US policy
While the Kosovo situation lent itself to direct intervention, the Kurdish situation would not require military action on behalf of the United States. In fact, if anything further intervention and U.S. sponsored regime change in the Middle East would be very counterproductive, and even interfere with the progress of peshmerga forces. Kurdish minorities are very prominent in Iran, and American military intervention on behalf of the Kurds would likely hurt American-Iranian relations. There are also several recent examples of failed American intervention which caused further destabilization, creating voids easily filled by ISIS insurgents. Just last week the U.S. announced they would resume airstrikes in north-central Libya following reports of coastal towns falling to ISIS fighters. Doubling down on a policy proven to create more enemies than friends would certainly create many more problems in the future.
Supporting Kurdish self-determination would empower them to solve their own regional conflicts. It would be a step towards creating another lasting friendship in the Middle East. Breaking up the ‘destined-to-fail’ British mandate of Iraq would signal an end to post-colonial politics in the region and the beginning of a new, more hands off, decentralized approach. Without having to risk much political capital, the United States can entirely change the dynamic and turn the tides against the Islamic State.
Why the US won’t support an independent Kurdistan
So the question is: Why is supporting Kurdish independence not a seriously discussed policy in Washington D.C.?
The answer is that supporting this policy is not profitable. The Kurds are a threat to ISIS, but they are also a threat to American defense contractors that profit from the conflicts. Arming the Kurds has been discussed and even approved by Congress. But throwing guns and money at the Kurds will not change anything in the region and American defense contractors know that. These ‘solutions’ will only prolong conflict, which means more business. Until Kurdish independence and peace in the Middle East become more profitable than conflict, don’t count on American support.