Masoud Barazani did yesterday what even his legendary father Mullah Mustafa Barazani never managed and dared to do. He put the historic plight and claim of his oppressed nation firmly on the forefront of world attention, but tragically enough for this brave leader and people, attention may prove to be insufficient when achieving actual independence is concerned. As of now, only one state, Israel, the traditional ally of Kurdish nationalism expressed its support for a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq. The Israelis mean it seriously, they helped the Kurds in the past, and they may be able to help some now, but this is not what will tip the scales in favor of the realization of the Kurdish aspirations. Geopolitics is such, that the Israelis simply cannot connect on the ground with the Kurds. The key is in the hands of the Trump administration and the omens are not promising for the Kurds.
Some context is needed here, before we embark on what is so customary these days, which is to mock the new guy in the White House and his team of foreign and security policy advisers. It is the US, whose actions as of 1991 made it possible for the Kurds in Iraq to move towards where they are now. As of April 1991, following the Desert Storm war against Saddam’s regime, the Americans imposed a no fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan, thus depriving oppressive regimes in Baghdad, starting with the British Mandatory authorities in the 1920’s all the way to the murderous Saddam regime, to use the airspace in order to bomb to death the revolting Kurds. Who can forget the pictures of thousands of slaughtered Kurds, the result of an aerial Iraqi chemical attack on Halabja in 16 March 1988? Surely people of good will should forever remember it, and so by having a no fly zone, and by neutralizing the Iraqi army on the ground, also after 2003, the Kurds could finally start developing the North of Iraq, turning Irbil, their capital, and the entire region, into the most peaceful and prosperous area of the otherwise tormented Iraqi state. A virtual self rule emerged there, and for that, the kudos goes to successive American administrations, and the Kurds, even in their time of euphoria now, should remember and appreciate it. However, the desire for full independence is fully understandable and should be seen against the background of the gradual turning of Arab Iraq into a Shi’ite-Iranian colony. There is nothing for the Kurds in an Iraq like that, and the Kurdish leadership under Masoud Barazani made the right decision to claim their indisputable right for independence, doing it in the most democratic and dignified fashion possible.This is one side of the coin, but here is the other-the geopolitics. The Kurds say, that the mountains are their historic home, but being neighbor of Turkey, Iran and Syria means today what it always means, and this is the fear that a Kurdish state in Southern Kurdistan will lead to an overall Kurdish implosion all over Kurdistan. The Turks are engaged in their on-going violent struggle against rebel Kurds, the Iranians violently curbed Kurdish massive demonstrations of support to the referendum in Iraq, and they remember the short-lived Kurdish Republic in West Iran from December of 1945 to the end of 1946, and then there is the emerging Kurdish self rule in Syria. It is the Middle East version of the Domino effect, and it is not going to change. Turkey and Iran will not tolerate an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Syria may not like the idea, but its ability to do too much about that is greatly limited. That said, we have two more actors to take into account-Russia and the US.
Russia has had historic relations with Kurdish nationalism, providing home to Mullah Mustafa Barazani from 1946 to 1958, and while history may not determine Vladimir Putin’s current thinking, there is a case to be argued for Russia to allow the development of an Independent Iraqi Kurdistan. For example, by avoiding a veto in the UN Security Council like they do with regard to Kosovo. Independent Iraqi Kurdistan can enable the Russians to use it as card against both Iran and Turkey , making deals with the Kurds about their oil [though the Turks can block Kurdish oil] and altogether look like the champions of independence for an oppressed nation. This may be Putin’s line of thinking, but there are no obvious signs that it is , though it is fairly clear, that he will not drag his country to any military adventure in Iraq, on top of the one in Syria, which may seem a success now but can still become a quagmire at any given time.
That leaves us with the US, and what may become the next great decision to be made by President Trump. There is the natural desire not to completely ruin a shaky status quo, as super powers usually prefer the devil they know, and there is a Nato member Turkey, but then there is also Iran. Any American strategy to contain Iran, even without a withdrawal from the nuclear deal, should have a Kurdish component. Support the Kurds in Syria and Iraq and the Iranians are facing a major problem, especially as this situation will bring to the fore the plight of the Kurds in Iran itself. The Americans do not need to do much at this stage, and while they can still oppose the inclusion of Iraqi Kurdistan in the UN, they should make it clear, that no military attack on the Kurds will be allowed, that the no fly zone is in full force, and that the referendum should be the basis for talks between the Iraqi government and the Kurds. If that happens, the Kurds will be able to start enjoying the fruits of the referendum. It will be phased movement towards the final goal, but one in which realities on the ground will prove to be the deciding factor.
President Trump can make both the right moral and strategic decision if accepting the referendum as a fait accompli and continuing to provide a military shelter to the Kurds. The next few weeks will give us the answer.