The Iraqi Kurds’ dreams of independence, endorsed by a Kurdish referendum last month, have come to a crushing halt.
This week the hostile Baghdad government clawed back the key oil-town of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces, along with other territory both sides claim. The Kurds, close American allies, feel that Washington betrayed them by effectively taking the side of Baghdad. There is some truth to the claim but the Kurds were also betrayed from within.
More important is how Washington deals with the Kurdish issue in the future – in both Iraq and Syria, Kurdish fighters have been crucial U.S. allies against the Islamic State. That battle is almost ended, now that the last Islamic State stronghold – the Syrian city of Raqqa – is falling.
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Yet signals from Washington indicate small interest in the Kurds’ fate once their fighters are no longer needed.
How the United States treats its Kurdish friends now will signal whether the Trump team has a long-term strategy to help keep the region stable post-Islamic State. If it doesn’t, the biggest victor will be Iran.
To understand why, you need some background. No Mideast group deserves self-determination more than the Kurds. An ancient non-Arab group, they were promised independence by the great powers after the breakup of the Ottoman empire. Instead, the World War I allies divided their mountainous lands among Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
The United States bears much responsibility for the Iraqi Kurds’ recent gallop toward independence. After the 1991 Gulf War, Washington established a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan that enabled them to establish an autonomous zone. Following Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003, the 6 million Kurds set up their own Kurdish regional government, or KRG.
When Islamic State troops pushed into Iraq in 2014 as Iraqi forces fled, the Kurds defended their region. They later rolled the Islamic State back from huge swaths of land with support from U.S. airpower.
As for Kirkuk, this multiethnic city, surrounded by rich oil fields, is dear to the Kurdish psyche and wallet. But, as I witnessed firsthand in 1991, Saddam drove thousands of Kurds out of the city, dynamited their homes and resettled their districts with Iraqi Arabs. The Kurds took back Kirkuk during the fight against the Islamic State.
Kirkuk’s fate was supposed to be decided by a referendum no later than 2007. But the Baghdad government never scheduled the vote, nor did it ever conduct serious negotiations with Kurdish leaders on Kirkuk or other contentious issues. The KRG’s frustration helped drive the decision to hold the referendum.
The Baghdad government, along with neighboring Turkey and Iran, all opposed the referendum. So did Washington. But the Kurds argued that it would finally give them leverage in bargaining with Baghdad. However, the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said it would only talk if Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani rescinded the referendum. That he would not do.
In recent days, Iraqi security forces, including Iranian-backed Shiite militias, massed outside Kirkuk. Iraqi media reports say a senior general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps told Kurdish commanders in the city to surrender or be crushed. Iran is trying to dominate post-Islamic State Iraq, and the famous IRGC Quds force chief, Gen. Qasem Soleimani, travels there often.
But here comes the internal Kurdish betrayal. Leaders of one political faction in Kurdistan made a side deal with Baghdad and told their forces to pull back from Kirkuk without informing Barzani. So Kirkuk essentially fell because of Kurdish disunion, followed by a negotiated Kurdish troop pullback from other areas.
“The referendum is over and belongs in the past,” crowed Abadi. But will the Iraqi government seek to further humiliate the Kurds, or will the Iraqi leader finally negotiate with the KRG over territory and oil?
The answer to that question revolves heavily around what the United States does now.
In years past, U.S. diplomats proved crucial in mediating disputes between Iraqi Kurds and Baghdad. Only the United States is in position to do that again.
Yet President Donald Trump has shown little interest in post-Islamic State diplomacy, and an understaffed State Department is in poor position to handle negotiations. Disinterest in Washington is the first step to betrayal of our Kurdish allies. (Washington also seems ready to abandon our Syrian Kurdish allies once the Raqqa battle is complete).
However, if the Baghdad-Erbil dispute comes to a boil, Iran will be inserting itself in the middle. Tehran is eager to end the U.S. presence in Iraq and to dominate Baghdad.
“It behooves the United States to push Abadi to sit down and negotiate,” says Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG representative in Washington. “We know the United States wants to teach the Kurds a lesson but how far does the U.S. want Baghdad to go?
“Now is the time to get everyone around the table,” Abdul Rahman adds. “Let’s get to talking.”
Too bad Washington didn’t get that dialogue going sooner, but later is better than never.
Betrayal may be easier, but a record of abandoning one’s allies can come to haunt the betrayer. So the time for Washington to act on the Kurdish question is now.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She can be contacted at email@example.com.