There’s a popular saying in Kurdistan that the Kurds’ only friends are the mountains, meaning that when they need to fight back against occupiers or invaders, the only support they can count on is their forbidding terrain. This isn’t quite fair: The United States has been a pretty good friend to the Kurds of Iraq for the past 25 years. But as we’re likely about to see as Kurdish voters head to the polls for a controversial independence referendum on Monday that friendship has limits.
Few groups in the world get as much good will from Washington as Iraq’s Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, is a pocket of safety and political stability in a very dangerous region. Its leaders are staunchly pro-American (and even pro-Israel). Most Kurds practice a moderate brand of Islam, and the region has shown a remarkable commitment to gender equality. Its armed forces, the Peshmerga, have been an effective fighting force on the ground against ISIS, and the area has hosted a significant number of refugees and displaced people from Syria and elsewhere in Iraq. In short, it’s the sort of Middle East ally American politicians dream about.
Iraqi Kurdistan—distinct from other large Kurdish regions in Syria, Turkey, and Iran—is to a significant degree already independent. Under customary international law, the minimum threshold for statehood is a government, a permanent population, a defined territory, and the capacity to enter relations with other states. Kurdistan has all four. Most Kurds don’t identify as Iraqi. Like every U.S. citizen, I was able to travel there last year without an Iraqi visa.
This state of affairs is in large part thanks to the U.S. After decades of persecution under Saddam Hussein, a no-fly zone enforced by the U.S. and its allies after the first Gulf War allowed the Kurdish political experiment to take place. Kurds largely backed the 2003 U.S. invasion and have been one of that war’s rare beneficiaries. It was ISIS’s invasion of Kurdish territory in August 2014 that finally prompted the reluctant Obama administration to launch a military intervention against the group. (A concerted lobbying effort by the Kurdish government in Washington has also kept Kurdish concerns at the forefront of U.S. politicians’ minds.)
And yet, successive U.S. administrations have stopped just short of backing Kurdistan’s ultimate goal, full independence, typically arguing that the time is not right for the break-up of Iraq. After Kurdish President Masoud Barzani visited the White House in 2015, for instance, the Obama White House affirmed its support for a “united federal and democratic Iraq.” The Trump administration has maintained a similar position, urging Kurdistan to delay its referendum until after the final defeat of ISIS in Iraq. “We strongly oppose the planned September 25 referendum on Kurdish independence,” State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez told me in an emailed statement. “We urge Baghdad and Erbil to continue their cooperation to defeat ISIS, which has led to the liberation of Mosul and other areas.”
This makes some sense. It’s been hard enough to build the fractious and mistrustful coalition of countries battling ISIS, and Kurdish independence risks throwing another combustible element into the mix: Baghdad opposes the referendum as does nearly every country in the region with the exception of Israel.
But Kurds argue that the ISIS situation proves that they will never be safe as long as they’re part of Iraq. “After a century of trying, it is time to recognize that the forced inclusion of the Kurds in Iraq has not worked for us or for the Iraqis,” Barzani wrote in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post. Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdish Regional Government’s representative in Washington, told me she regularly hears the argument that Kurdistan ought to delay its referendum until after the fighting against ISIS is complete. “We might consider postponing it if there was a guarantee that the U.S. would eventually support it,” she said. “When you’re talking about Iraq, it’s very hard to find a window when Iraq is either not at war with itself or with some foreign entity. When is Iraq at peace? If we’re going to wait for Iraq to be Switzerland, I will never see a referendum in my lifetime.”
Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and longtime advocate of Kurdish independence who has advised the Kurdish government and used to have business interests in the region, put it to me this way: “Why is the U.S. committed to keeping a country that is very pro-American and our ally under a government that is dominated by Iran? It’s perverse. Why aren’t we with our friends?”
No matter how sympathetic the U.S. might be to Kurdish aspirations—President Trump has described himself as a “big fan of the Kurds”—it’s actually not surprising that the U.S. is wary about backing a new state in the Middle East. With a few notable exceptions—Kosovo and South Sudan most recently—the U.S. has nearly always opposed the break-up of existing countries, including Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, fearing (with some justification) the potential for instability. And while it’s undoubtedly stable and prosperous compared to the rest of Iraq, there are some reasons to be wary about an independent Kurdistan’s prospects. The region has been mired for years in a financial crisis caused by both the ISIS situation and the low price of oil. It’s internally divided—the two main cities of Erbil and Suleymaniah are controlled by rival political parties whose clashes have turned violent in the past. There are also the tricky areas outside of the Kurdish Regional Government’s formal control, most notably the oil-rich, ethnically diverse city of Kirkuk, that were captured by the Peshmerga after the collapse of Iraqi security forces in the fight against ISIS. Neither Erbil nor Baghdad is likely to give these areas up without a fight.
There’s also a very real fear that, as unstable as the region has been, Kurdish independence could make things worse. “If [Barzani] unleashes momentum that can’t be checked and declares independence, there will be blood,” says Michael Rubin, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Kurdistan Rising. “Iran has already given the Kurds a red line and fearing the precedent of Kurdish independence, I fully expect them to uphold it. The fact that the Kurds are holding the referendum in disputed areas will make likely conflict with Baghdad.”
Despite these concerns, Kurds will almost certainly vote for independence in the referendum. Nearly 99 percent of them did the last time a similar vote was held—a nonbinding referendum in 2005. What comes next is less certain.
Kurdistan won’t be recognized as independent overnight, and Barzani has made clear that the timing of when Kurdistan actually becomes independent is subject to negotiation with Baghdad. Rahman compares the situation to Brexit, “where the British voted to get out of Europe and now the British government has to negotiate with Brussels.” But unlike the European Union, Iraq may refuse to even negotiate with Kurdistan, and in doing so would have the backing of most of the international community.
And what will the United States do? The U.S. has on several occasions paid lip service to Kurdish aspirations only to sell them out when they were no longer politically convenient. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration helped facilitate arms shipments to Kurdish rebels fighting Saddam only to cut off aid after it normalized relations with Iraq. A campaign of ethnic cleansing that killed around 100,000 Kurds followed. During the Gulf War in 1991, President George H.W. Bush openly encouraged “the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Kurds, along with Iraqi Shiites, did rise up, but the U.S. never had any intention of openly backing the uprising or forcing Saddam from power. After the war, the dictator was allowed to keep his attack helicopters, which he quickly turned on Kurdish villages.
A betrayal on this scale is unlikely now. Still, the House Armed Services Committee has already threatened to withhold funding to the Peshmerga if Kurdistan breaks away from Iraq. Kurds can be forgiven for suspecting that their friends in Washington only support them when it’s convenient.
“The United States has played a very important role in Kurdistan. We’re grateful to the United States for many things,” says Rahman. ”We like to see this as a disagreement among friends.”
After Monday, we’ll see just how deep that friendship really goes.