Iraqi-Kurd peshmerga soldiers are teaming up with Iraqi government forces in operations targeting resurgent ISIS cells outside Kirkuk. The joint mission is evidence that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad-based central government can work together—but only when it’s absolutely necessary. Iraq’s Kurds simply don’t want to be part of Iraq. However, breaking loose from the basket-case regime in Baghdad is not going to be easy.
Before getting into the prospects of independence for the KRG, it’s important to discuss why the Kurds of northern Iraq desire independence.
A major factor is what the Iraqi state has done to them. Saddam Hussein’s pogroms killed as many as 100,000 Kurds and destroyed 4,000 Kurdish villages. Saddam even used chemical weapons against the Kurds, killing 5,000 civilians in a single attack. In the post-Saddam years, Baghdad has alternately taken the Kurds for granted in times of emergency and withheld public-sector payments, oil revenues and military equipment in times of relative calm.
“We are talking about a people who have been deported, Arabized by force, gassed and pushed into the mountains,” explains French journalist Bernard-Henri Levi, who embedded with Iraqi-Kurd peshmerga forces during the anti-ISIS campaign.
Another factor: the de facto independence the Kurds of northern Iraq have enjoyed since the early 1990s. Many Americans are unaware that Iraq’s Kurds have been under the protective wing of American power since 1991. At the end of the Gulf War, as Saddam tried to strangle the friendless Kurds into submission, President George H.W. Bush dispatched ground forces to protect them and ordered air assets to enforce a no fly zone over northern Iraq. This allowed Iraq’s Kurds to live in relative safety and begin building a semi-sovereign Kurdistan. The no-fly zone was continued under President Bill Clinton, and Iraq’s Kurds grew more autonomous. By 2003, U.S. forces were working closely with KRG peshmerga—preparing the battlespace before Operation Iraqi Freedom, neutralizing terror bases held by Ansar al Islam, using the Kurdish zone as a launching pad for operations further south.
After Saddam’s ouster, as the rest of Iraq hemorrhaged, the KRG emerged as an island of relative calm—and an openly pro-American one at that. The KRG embraced democratic governance and economic freedom, set up diplomatic missions around the world, opened new pipelines to carry oil outbound, and launched a stock exchange. By 2013, the Economist Intelligence Unit rated the KRG’s business environment better than that of Indonesia, Jordan, Russia and India.
Yet another factor: the mess in Baghdad. Not only has the central government in post-Saddam Iraq played games with the KRG; it has repeatedly failed to fulfill the basic functions of a governing authority. The most spectacular example was the collapse of Iraqi forces in the face of the ISIS blitzkrieg. Only with lots of hand-holding from Western troops—and lots of help from KRG peshmerga fighters and Iranian militia—was the re-rebuilt Iraqi military able to rise above its catastrophic collapse in 2014, when ISIS overran Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi and nearly reached Baghdad.
Indeed, as ISIS swept into Iraq in 2014, the KRG’s peshmerga proved itself the only effective fighting force indigenous to Iraq. Coordinating closely with U.S. forces, the peshmerga was crucial first to holding back the ISIS onslaught and then turning back the ISIS invasion. In 2014, some 7,500 peshmerga fighters fought their way to Mt. Sinjar and rescued hundreds of trapped Yazidis. In early 2015, peshmerga forces, backed by coalition airpower, cleared scores of villages in northern Iraq of ISIS militants. But the peshmerga’s importance was most evident in the 2016-17 operation aimed at liberating Mosul, the largest Iraqi city occupied by ISIS. The operation comprised an estimated 100,000 personnel drawn from the Iraqi military, Shiite militias, Western military units and 15,000 peshmerga fighters. On the ground with the peshmerga, Levi detailed how the Kurds were “responsible for breaking through ISIS’s forward lines and opening the gates to the city.”
The Kurds paid a high price for their victories. Between August 2014 and July 2017, 1,745 peshmerga personnel were killed and more than 10,000 wounded fighting ISIS. In addition, the KRG has taken in 1.8 million refugees from Syria and Iraq. These are enormous sacrifices for a population of 6 million.
Iraqis Killing Iraqis
Yet the Kurdish people—spread across Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran—remain the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. The KRG seemed poised to change that last autumn, when 93 percent of the region voted in favor of independence.
Baghdad responded to the nonbinding independence referendum by sending troops to retake oil fields and checkpoints in the disputed city of Kirkuk, which the KRG had occupied since 2014 (during the Iraqi military’s meltdown). The move into Kirkuk was a clear signal that Baghdad was not going to let the Kurds poach the oil-rich area or leave without a fight—and had the capability to exert its will.
Washington, which had opposed the KRG’s independence vote, stood aside as Baghdad reasserted its authority. “The United States remains committed to a united, stable, democratic and federal Iraq,” the State Department declared after the vote.
“We don’t need Iraqis killing Iraqis,” added Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, commander of the anti-ISIS coalition. While Funk’s sentiments are sound, the vast majority of Kurds living in Iraq would take issue with his word choice. They simply don’t see themselves as Iraqis.
Even so, the near-term prospects for an independent KRG seem low.
First, Washington is clearly more interested in keeping Iraq together and keeping NATO ally Turkey happy than in promoting the Wilsonian ideal of self-determination. During discussions with KRG leaders this summer, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo emphasized, “continuing U.S. support for a strong, sovereign and prosperous Iraq, as outlined in our bilateral Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq.” Importantly, that agreement commits all parties to “a unified and federal Iraq.”
Second, the 2017 independence referendum not only failed to legitimize or advance Kurdish independence; it also exposed deep fissures within the KRG’s own politics and angered Baghdad.
Third, when we look at examples of statelets breaking free from larger entities, the KRG’s case lacks some of the key elements that have helped legitimize and propel secession movements. Recent history suggests that a global outcry in response to grave human-rights abuses is necessary to catalyze successful independence movements. Consider Kosovo, East Timor and South Sudan. To be sure, Iraq’s Kurds endured brutal mistreatment under Saddam, but that was decades before the 2017 referendum. It could be argued that the KRG’s success in the years since 1991 forging a de facto state capable of protecting its people has prevented the very sorts of outrages that might have rallied the world to the cause of Kurdish independence.
Still, independence remains the goal of Iraq's Kurds, and they have some powerful allies in Washington and elsewhere.
“An independent Kurdistan that has international recognition could work in America’s favor,” argues National Security Advisor John Bolton. Adds Sen. Chuck Schumer: “The Kurds continue to get a raw deal and are told to wait for tomorrow…It’s past due that the world, led by the United States, immediately back a political process to address the aspirations of the Kurds.”
The recently-passed National Defense Authorization Act makes it clear Congress plans to “continue to provide operational sustainment, as appropriate, to the Ministry of Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.”
Moreover, factors in the region could rapidly tip the scales back in favor of KRG independence. With longtime U.S. foe Moqtada al-Sadr now holding the levers of power in Baghdad—and an increasingly-hostile government in Turkey playing games with Incirlik—U.S. bases in the KRG may prove more important than ever. If the U.S. gets kicked out of Sadr’s Iraq and/or gets tired of Erdogan’s Turkey, it’s not hard to imagine Washington concluding that U.S. interests are no longer served by trying to hold together the artificial construct known Iraq—and then making a virtue out of necessity, consolidating U.S. regional military assets in the KRG and supporting KRG independence.
Finally, in late July, the Saudi government announced plans to invest heavily in the KRG and begin “strengthening of economic and trade ties in all areas of the Kurdistan Region,” according to the KRG prime minister’s office. Plans are in the works for direct flights between Erbil and Saudi airports, and there are discussions underway about opening Saudi banks in the KRG.
Partition is tricky business and should never be entered into lightly. It can have the effect of undermining regional or international order. Consider the partitions following the world wars, the consequences of which we continue to deal with today. So, world leaders shouldn’t redraw existing borders carelessly.
But when trying to hold a state together becomes more disruptive to international order than allowing it to break apart, when one group continually mistreats another within a state, when a government loses the ability and authority to govern, the sensible course is to let that state dissolve and support its successor states move toward full independence (as the U.S. and its allies did vis-à-vis the former Yugoslavia).
That moment may not have arrived for Iraq just yet, but it’s on the horizon.
Alan Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. Research assistant Zach Van Duyn contributed to this essay, a version of which appeared in Providence.