The recent events in Syria, situation in Iraq, and ongoing strain with Turkey provide another opportunity to review U.S. policy concerning the Kurdish people. The Kurds are an ethnic minority living in regions bridging the Middle East, Iran, and the Caucasus. Despite being Muslim, the Kurds have faced repeated repression and even genocide from other Muslim countries including Iraq (under Saddam), Syria, Turkey, and others. Consequently, some sects within the Kurdish communities have unfortunately resorted to terrorism. However, the majority of Kurdish communities have been pro-western, democratic leaning, hard-working people who just want to live in peace. Generations of repression and human rights atrocities against the Kurds has led to calls for Kurdish autonomy. Why is there not an independent Kurdistan in the region?
Geopolitical calculations by the U.S. and European allies based on the old “cold war” model and efforts to promote stability among Middle East clients have left the Kurdish people without a state of their own. Russia’s support of its ally Syria, specifically the two Assad regimes, and their relations with Saddam’s Iraq provided cover to those regimes’ brutal repression of their Kurdish minority populations. Turkey, an important NATO member and Middle East ally, vehemently opposed any Kurdish autonomy. Turkey fears a Kurdish state because it would enjoy a large border with Turkey and either Turkey would have to cede Kurdish territory to the new united Kurdish state or at least face significant interaction between the state and its indigenous Kurdish population along the border region. Turkey’s security concerns have some basis in fact. A new Kurdish state could spurn border disputes to unite the Kurdish populations. However, it is unlikely a Kurdish state would want hostilities with Turkey because of more significant concerns along the likely borders of Syria and Iraq.
The U.S. has worked closely with the Kurds, especially since the 1990s and the Gulf War. From the end of the Gulf War until the removal of Saddam Hussein in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the U.S. enforced a “no-fly” zone over Kurdish territory designed to prevent repression and genocide and support a move toward limited autonomy. In recent years, Kurdish military forces, specifically the Peshmerga, have proved extremely capable and effective in the fight against ISIS, leading the effort to liberate Iraqi and Syrian territory from ISIS brutality. While the Kurds owe much to the U.S. for support enabling them to maintain their limited autonomy, the U.S. also owes much to the Kurds for their loyal partnership in the region.
Russia will no doubt maintain opposition to Kurdish autonomy in Syria, and thus a united, independent Kurdish state. However, the U.S. is in a stronger position to finally modify its position and support a Kurdish state. Iraq should no longer stand as a realistic obstacle. Iraq is succumbing to increasing Iranian influence threatening its ultimate transformation into a true democracy. We should focus more on the Kurds. More importantly, Turkish opposition should also be less of an obstacle. Erdogan has been consolidating power, moving Turkey away from democracy and more towards authoritarianism. Similarly, Turkey has been less cooperative and less supportive of NATO priorities. They appear to have a more cordial relationship with Russia. While we do not want Turkey to become a Russian client, the NATO alliance and the European Union (EU) cannot sit idly by while Turkey becomes more problematic. The issue here is that Turkish hostility to the Kurds should no longer carry much weight.
The Kurdish people have earned and deserve an independent state. They should be free from the oppression and genocide that continue to threaten their future. The international community, led by NATO and the EU, must support Kurdish autonomy. The time has come.