Kurdistan Secession and the United States
Will the US back Kurdistan or its other regional allies?
This week is the week of separation referendums – both in Kurdistan and Spain’s Catalonia.
This week, to the consternation of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted for separation. While these nations immediately took action to counter any separate Kurdish nation, the Kurds made it clear that the time for an independent Kurdistan has come.
However, the history of the world is replete with failed secession movements. America’s Confederacy, Nigeria’s Biafra, and Britain’s Scotland are good examples.
The key to a successful secession movement is recognition from other nations who give them access to weapons for the inevitable war of independence.
Does an independent Kurdistan have this? Maybe.
In this analysis, we will look at two factors: why the US may choose to support an independent Kurdistan and what military actions it could take.
Why the US may support an Independent Kurdistan
Kurdistan’s biggest hope is the United States. However, the US State Department has indicated that it favors an autonomous Kurdish region within Iraq, but favors a unified Iraq.
Of course, national unity is the favored position for the State Department, no matter the situation. When the Soviet Union was breaking up, the State Department said they favored a unified Soviet Union until the end. This despite the fact that the US celebrated “Captive Nations Day” which called for the independence of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Of course, Trump delights in defying the international consensus and State Department on a variety of issues. Backing the Kurds is exactly the sort of outside-the-box thinking that Trump promised when he was elected president.
But, Trump seems to be adhering to the conventional wisdom on Kurdistan. He has been clear that his administration opposes the referendum held there Monday.
But, does he really oppose an independent Kurdistan? Maybe not. This may be a case where the US says one thing and does another. The Kurds have been a reliable ally against ISIS, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Iran. The Kurdish Peshmerga, the military force raised by Iraqi Kurdistan, has been to US the only reliable land force in the campaign against ISIS. Without the Kurds, U.S. efforts to rout ISIS would have continued to fail. Supporting the Kurds would support America’s sole reliable ally in the fight against ISIS. It would also provide Trump with leverage against Iran.
Support for the Kurds will roil US/Turkish relations, but it would send the Erdogan regime a message that he cannot dictate U.S. policy, and that the U.S. will not ignore his ill treatment of Turkish political opposition or the Kurds.
However, giving the Kurds their independence would be a distraction from the war on ISIS and a threat to the fragile Iraqi government in Baghdad.
But, the main target of a US recognition of the Kurds, would be Iran. Trump put the world on notice last week, in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations that he was not prepared to follow the lead of America’s European allies on Iran. He made a strong case that the nuclear deal his predecessor struck with Tehran had been ineffective in achieving its goal of ending the threat of an Iranian weapon. Just as important, he pointed out that the pact had both enriched and emboldened Iran.
Trump has struggled to balance the campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq with his recognition of the danger that a triumphant, nuclear Iran poses to the West and to Sunni Arab states eager to cooperate with the U.S. This question has exposed a terrible contradiction in his foreign policy: His desire to restrain Iran has collided with his hopes for better relations with Russia, which is Syria’s most important ally.
Though an independent Kurdistan in what is now northern Iraq won’t block Iran’s land bridge to Lebanon and its ally Hezbollah, the presence of a strong armed force on Iran’s flank would provide the US with the strategic leverage against Iran which Trump has been looking for. Moreover, given the strength of the Peshmerga, the Kurds can defend themselves so long as the US is prepared to arm them.
Kurdistan will also act as a bridgehead for the West in an area where anti-American forces have seized the initiative in Syria.
But, supporting the Kurds will ruin relations with Turkey and Iraq. This leaves the US seeking a compromise between the Kurds and Iraq, with promises of more autonomy and a promise to revisit the issue of Kurdish independence later.
However, the West has had a habit of ignoring the Kurds when it is politically convenient. Though the US regarded the Kurds as a friendly force throughout the war in Iraq, America was also heavily invested in maintaining some degree of Iraq unity, even if that concept was more of a legal fiction than a reality. Just as important, giving independence to Iraq’s Kurds scares both Turkey and Iran, who both have substantial Kurdish minorities that have been subject to repression.
But, Trump is well aware that Iraqi unity and a democratic federal system in Iraq are likely an unobtainable goal. The Kurds also know that if their push for independence is put on hold until after they’ve finished fighting ISIS, the US won’t ensure that any promises made to them will be kept. That’s why, in spite of condemnations from those neighboring governments and even discouragement from the United Nations the Kurds have gone ahead and held their referendum.
Given these circumstances, we can expect the US not to recognize any Kurdish state. However, what is “official” and what is the reality will likely be quite different.
The US has sent arms and Special Forces advisors into Kurdish territory in the past and they could do the same, even though Iraq and other countries will try to close Kurdish airports and borders.
US Special Forces have a long history of working with the Kurds and there are many active and retired SF operators who know the Kurds and have been responsible for their training – training that has made them the reliable military force that they are.
Also, it is a fact that US special operations forces are already on the ground in Syria assisting Kurdish forces fighting ISIS. This provides the US some deniability if they choose to support the Kurds.
In the end, we should remember that as long as ISIS and Iran are perceived as a threat by Washington, the US will work to keep the Kurds an effective fighting force. And, that means helping them achieve independence if necessary.
US military options
The most logical step would be to send “deniable” weapons into Kurdistan – arms captured from ISIS by US backed forces. The US could even send in some US manufactured weapons and claim that they were US arms given to the Iraqis and captured by ISIS.
Another source of weapons would be Israel. It is assumed that Israel has a stockpile of arms, American and Israeli made. Consequently, their background would be suitably vague.
There are also several sources of manpower to assist an independent Kurdistan. There are many Iraqi Kurds being trained in the United States as part of US assistance to Iraq. Many of these Kurds could be expected to defect in the next few weeks and take their skills to Kurdistan. Some of these Kurds include pilots who know how to provide close air support.
The US isn’t expected to use visible American support to help the Kurds. That might eliminate American airpower providing close air support.