As the Republican Debate last night proved sadly uneventful, we’ll be discussing a different topic today. The Iraqi Kurds have decided to hold a referendum on seceding from Iraq and becoming an independent state. Of course, it’s big news any time a group is attempting to declare independence, but it’s especially important in this case. If the Iraqi Kurds do in fact secede, it will have major implications for the US’s undeclared war on ISIS, the stability of the Iraqi government, and several neighboring countries. But before we get there, first some context.
The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group of people that reside mostly in adjacent areas of present-day northeastern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey, and northeastern Syria. In case your geography is a little rusty, here’s a slightly dated map that shows the region we’re talking about:
At present, some of the highlighted region, especially in northern Iraq is under the control of ISIS, but it still gives you the general idea. The only Kurds that will be participating in the referendum on independence are the ones located inside Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds have had significant autonomy within Iraq for a long time, but they have also aspired for outright independence. Many of the Kurds living in the other countries also aspire to independence. Thus, there is a legitimate possibility that if the Iraqi Kurds successfully secede from Iraq, that will fuel similar secession movements in the adjacent countries in an attempt to create a united Kurdistan. In the short-run, this could potentially lead to further instability in a region that has plenty already.
Adding to these general complications is the fact that the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds are viewed as some of the most reliable allies on the ground in the fight against ISIS. Indeed, many of the high profile victories against the Islamic State have been won by the Kurds–including at Kobani in Syria and Kirkuk in Iraq. But when we use the term reliable here, it’s important to note that we’re using a pretty low standard. We basically mean, least likely to give their weapons to Al Qaeda or commit obvious atrocities; two things we can’t say for most of the other rebel groups in Syria (or in Libya before that).
And yet, recent evidence has emerged that casts some doubt on the Kurds’ reputation for being reasonable partners in the region. Specifically, a new report from Amnesty International indicates that the Iraqi Kurds have had a policy of expelling Arab residents and deliberately burning down the towns that they liberate from ISIS. This, in turn, creates more suffering in Iraq and likely increases the appeal of ISIS for people in the region. It also helps illustrate just how convoluted the broad civil war in Iraq and Syria truly is.
Returning to the question of secession, some US politicians anticipated this move and have called for the US to openly support Kurdish independence. Others see the “territorial integrity” of Iraq as sacrosanct and believe the US should focus on trying to restore Iraq to its initial borders.
But ultimately, the answer is that the US should do neither. Like all people, we can privately hope that the Kurds get the chance to exercise self-determination, which may mean they decide to stay in Iraq or formally secede. But given the aspirations of adjacent Kurdish groups for independence of their own, it would be irresponsible to openly back the broader movement for independence with anything more than rhetoric. What if the Kurds in Turkey want to secede as well and Turkey objects? Should the US be committed to waging a war against its ally to enforce our position? Clearly, this is absurd, and such a policy is likely to lead to more tension in the region, not less.
That said, this does not mean we should be backing the Iraqi government’s objections to Kurdish independence either. We already support government oppression in several other Middle Eastern nations; we don’t need to formally add another. In addition, we happen to have a history of supporting the Iraqi government against the Kurds back when Saddam was a US ally. It did not turn out well.
In short, this is the perfect example of a complicated regional dispute that the US should not be involved in. It’s not at all clear how we could make the situation better, but there are many ways we could make it worse. So instead of picking sides, the US should employ the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm.