The leader of the Jewish state has called for the creation of an independent Kurdish state. But some experts question the viability of the idea as well as the Kurds’ intentions.
“With respect to the Kurds, they are a warrior nation that is politically moderate, has proven they can be politically committed, and is worthy of statehood,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in late June.
Since then, the Islamic State terrorist group has continued to wreak havoc in Iraq. The Kurds, a historically maligned and stateless minority, have borne a large share of the responsibility for fighting the jihadists as they threaten the Kurdish semiautonomous region and the ethnic minorities living there.
The Kurdish aspiration for independent statehood remains a popular grassroots issue, although it is a sticking point between the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) two major factions—the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK), whose political alliances with major regional players such as Iran, Turkey, and the U.S. have largely dictated their positions.
The U.S., which is interested in maintaining the geographic integrity of Iraq and preventing new and bloody sectarian battles over territory, has allied its Kurdish independence policy with Iran, which seeks to keep the Kurds united under the Iraqi Shiite majority.
Nevertheless, Massoud Barzani, KRG’s president since 2005, and his KDP party have often talked about independence. In June, they took advantage of the disorder in the rest of Iraq to move the Kurdish regional security forces, the Peshmerga, into areas that were disputed between the KRG and Iraq. Those areas include the city of Kirkuk, which claims a long Kurdish patrimony.
Having taken over the disputed territories, Barzani announced a referendum to be held on Kurdish independence within months. So far, no date has been set, and in the face of opposition from Turkey, Iran, and the U.S., it is unclear whether the referendum will be held.
Adding to Barzani’s problems is the fact that Islamic State has moved against cities in northern Iraq, slaughtering Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities there.
Islamic State on June 9 captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city after Baghdad. The terror group then pushed on to Kirkuk and the border of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, eventually setting its sights on the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Islamic State overwhelmed the Peshmerga forces there, causing them to retreat and calling into question the credibility of Barzani’s drive toward independence.
“It showed the limitation of what the Kurds can do without American support and without the consent and support of the two big neighbors, Iran and Turkey. So it just put things back in perspective as far as they’re concerned,” said Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC. “This is not to say that the dream [of independence] is gone or anything of that nature, but [it shows a schism between] what is possible and what’s doable, especially now under the circumstances.”
When Islamic State attacked the Kurds, the Peshmerga forces “were fighting with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, and light equipment” while the jihadists “had much more powerful equipment,” said Karwan Zebari, director of congressional and academic affairs at the KRG’s representation office in the U.S., which acts as a de facto Kurdish embassy.
“[Islamic State] had armored Humvees, MRAP, tanks, artillery—our intelligences sources in the battlefield were telling us when the fighting was actually happening, it was ‘like taking a small rock and throwing it at a wall,’” Zebari said.
“That’s how [the Peshmerga’s] bullets were just flying, or bouncing off of these armored Humvees,” he said.
Islamic State’s advance alarmed the State Department, which began calling for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down. According to Zebari, intelligence reports about six months before the Islamic State push towards Mosul caused U.S. officials to alert Iraqi authorities in Baghdad, asking them to send Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) reinforcements to secure the area. Despite promising the U.S. that he would take care of that, al-Maliki stalled on sending ISF troops and was only persuaded when the U.S. threatened to use the Peshmerga to defend Mosul. By that time, it was too late.
The State Department blamed al-Maliki and his administration for the defeat. Part of what made it easy for Islamic State to beat the ISF and capture Sunni-majority areas was the marginalization non-Shiite Iraqis faced under his de-Ba’athification policies. Meanwhile, the Peshmerga was struggling to stall Islamic State, which was pushing toward Iraqi Kurdistan’s political seat of Erbil, where American military advisers were also stationed. The State Department publicly placed enormous confidence in the Peshmerga’s combat abilities.
“The Peshmerga have traditionally been a very courageous and strong fighting force. We think with some time to regroup, they will be up to the task of defending Erbil as well,” State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said Aug. 8, the day after the first U.S. airstrikes on Iraq. With the help of those airstrike, the Islamic State’s advance was thwarted.
Zebari, although not an unbiased source on the subject, believes the Peshmerga are superior to the ISF divisions that failed in Mosul.
“[The ISF] said, ‘Who am I going to fight for? These are Sunnis coming at me, I’m not going to fight for a government led by al-Maliki, who has actually starved me, marginalized me, and hasn’t protected me. I’m not going to fight ISIS,’” said Zebari. “On the other hand, you have the Kurdish forces: loyal, professional, organized, and veterans, saying, ‘This is my homeland, this is my people to protect, this is my land to make sure I protect and to take back. I am going to fight till the last bullet.’ But what was happening was they were outgunned, and that’s where in some of the areas they had to retreat.”
Together with commencing targeted airstrikes against Islamic State in early August, the U.S. stepped up its arming of the Peshmerga, but because America follows a policy of not arming non-state actors, military aid has been funneled through Baghdad, where according to experts, it is often held up and used as a bargaining chip in territorial and oil-sale disputes with the KRG.
“Certainly, we, the United States have conditioned our support to the Kurds to continue to be tethered to Baghdad,” said Badran. “The Americans have been telling them from day one that, ‘You have to go back to Baghdad. That’s your only choice.’ Meaning you have to work it out with the Iranians and the Shiites. That’s what it is.”
In the fight against Islamic State, the Peshmerga is defending its own territory and fighting for Kurdish security, and is not interested in annexing anything beyond the disputed territories, Zebari explained.
“Islamic State is nobody’s friend. We will fight Islamic State and go after them everywhere that they have captured that was previously under Kurdish territory, or if there’s a Kurdish resident. So everywhere there’s a Kurd we will protect,” said Zebari. “As far as Peshmerga forces going into Fallujah and Ramadi and fighting there, I don’t see that happening.”
After pressure from within his own government and from the U.S., al-Maliki was forced to resign, and a new government was slated to be formed under a new president and prime minister. A fresh effort to unify Iraq will be led by President Faud Masum, a Kurd and a member of the Iranian-supported PUK party, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite and a member of al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party.
“We are going to give time and space for this new prime minister-designate to form a new government,” said Zebari. “However, al-Abadi still comes from the same party as al-Maliki, from the same block—the Shiite bloc—and if al-Maliki hadn’t liked him, he wouldn’t have stepped aside.”
As far as Kurdish independence goes, the issue remains on hold in order to determine if the new Iraqi government will unite the country.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official, said that even though the U.S. is not openly endorsing Kurdish independence, the Kurds can count on American support if they choose to act unilaterally. The U.S. has generally supported independence movements throughout the world, including for the former Soviet republics and Kosovo. Since the Kurds have not taken such unilateral action already, Rubin questions the Kurdish government’s true intentions.
“If they have all the trappings of independence but they don’t need to worry about the responsibility of independence, [and] they don’t need to worry about their neighbors, they may figure they have it as good as it could get,” said Rubin. “Ultimately, I think they should declare independence, and the fact that they’re not suggests to me that they’re treating nationalism as a rhetorical tool rather than an honest goal.”
Zebari does not sound hopeful about the prospect of a unified Iraq, and neither does Netanyahu, given his call for the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Zebari is thankful for the Israeli prime minister’s support, adding that Kurdistan historically has had good relations with the Jewish state.
“The Israeli government as a whole and certainly the prime minister realize that Iraq is not governable,” said Zebari. “It’s inevitable that it will fall apart; there are too many factions. It’s like putting a lot of chemicals in a bottle and adding some water to it, and putting a cap on it. There will be all sorts of chemical reactions. Essentially that’s what Iraq is today.”
“Israel, the people of Israel, and the government of Israel have always been a friend and ally of the Kurdish people,” he added. “We welcome that and appreciate that support, and we’ll continue to depend [on] and cooperate with the Israeli people and the Israeli government.”