US loves Kurdish fighters but not Kurdish independence
In the classic 1970 movie “Kelly’s Heroes,” a US Army general in France during the second world war hears on a military radio that a group of soldiers appears to be pressing ahead with an offensive against the Germans. His staff of officers knows nothing of the offensive because it is an unauthorised rogue operation to steal gold from a bank behind German lines.
When he then hears that the rogue soldiers are pressing ahead despite encountering heavy German fire, the general bellows to his lethargic staff: “That’s the type of fighting spirit that I’m talking about.” He then gets in his jeep and heads to the front.
Although the movie is fictional, it underscores a truism: US military leaders like those who like to fight.
This is why the United States has armed and advised the Kurds in Syria and Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). The Kurds have proven to be tough fighters who are eager to go up against their enemies. In Syria, they are the main group in the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces leading the military campaign against Raqqa. In Iraq, the Kurdish peshmerga — “those who face death” — have been US allies since the early 1990s and helped to secure areas of northern Iraq that fell to ISIS in 2014.
US support for the Kurds brings political complications, however. Turkey strongly opposes the Syrian Kurds, particularly the Democratic Union Party (PYD) because of its links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation. Turkey wants to preclude the PYD from carving out an independent state in northern and eastern Syria since it is thought that would strengthen the PKK in Turkey.
Although the United States also considers the PKK a terrorist organisation, it has differentiated the PYD from the PKK and supports the PYD’s military wing — the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — because of its prowess against ISIS.
The situation in Iraq is more complicated because the United States has supported both the national government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which has effectively been operating on its own since 1991.
The Iraqi Kurds are planning a referendum on independence in September, despite opposition from the Iraqi and US governments as well as from Turkey and Iran. Although Turkey has developed close economic relations with the KRG, it fears a spillover effect of the referendum on its own Kurdish population. Iran fears the referendum would weaken the Shia-led government in Baghdad and perhaps encourage its own Kurdish minority to press for autonomy.
In a recent opinion article in the New York Times, Iraqi Kurdish official Aziz Ahmad said the vote would give the Iraqi Kurds a “mandate to pursue a negotiated settlement with Mr Abadi — and political recognition from his government is paramount.”
Ahmad chronicled Kurdish suffering at the hands of past Iraqi governments and sharply criticised the Abadi government for withholding supplies to Kurdish areas. He denied that the Kurdish “popular will” for independence would destabilise Iraq and the region and charged that the “privileged position” of the Shia leadership would continue to keep minorities such as the Kurds marginalised.
The Kurds are expected to vote overwhelmingly for independence but their leaders may use this to extract concessions from Baghdad rather than breaking away. In 2014, during the ISIS offensive, the Kurds seized the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, just outside the boundary of the KRG and they don’t want to relinquish it. They may offer to disavow independence in exchange for Baghdad’s recognition of Kirkuk, which has considerable oil resources, as part of the KRG.
Brett McGurk, the US envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, has praised the role of the Iraqi special forces and the Kurdish peshmerga in defeating ISIS in the Mosul operation but has also criticised the planned referendum and called on the KRG to reconsider the decision.
McGurk added that, under the Iraqi Constitution, “there’s an important process of dialogue that has to take place and having a referendum on such a fast timeline, particularly in disputed areas, would be… significantly destabilising.”
The United States has invested substantial resources to shore up the Iraqi central government and rebuild its national army under Abadi and hopes that a post-ISIS Iraq will stay unified and incorporate Iraq’s main groups into a stable governing structure. US officials view the Kurdish referendum as doing just the opposite.
So, despite appreciation for the Kurds’ fighting spirit, Washington is likely to favour the central government over the regional one, as it has done in the past, disappointing Kurdish nationalists once again.