Well, the Kurds have gone ahead and done their referendum, overruling the quibbles and frets of all the “stability” junkies in the Middle East policy community. That community, such as it is, has long followed the weird thought pattern that whatever is worst in the Middle East must be preserved, because those behaviors represent “intransigent” local custom and cultural standard, not to be intruded upon by meddlesome Westerners. On the other hand, whatever is best in the Middle East is viewed as aberrant and therefore negotiable.
Thus the ability of the Kurds to keep the peace in Northern Iraq, under the aegis of the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government), quietly keeping ISIS and other troublemakers at bay, is rarely lauded. When a good word must occasionally be said, it always has a grumpy echo. So the West, especially the US State Department, dances around the feckless government of Iraq while tolerating the Kurds. Tillerson’s boys asked the Kurds to delay the referendum until some indeterminate “better” time in the future. On the other hand, Benjamin Netanyahu promised to recognize the results of the plebiscite, always eager to have another friendly sovereign in the region.
Turkey and Syria do not want independence for the Kurds anywhere, because it will give “ideas” to the Kurds within their own borders. When the vote on September 25 called for independence, Erdogan of Turkey took to the airwaves to issue threats. Among other things, the KRG controls upwards of 20% of the oil in Iraq, and ships it for sale through Turkish pipelines. This gives Erdogan a great deal of leverage; we watch the next moves warily.
No one in the United States of America, whether military or political or academic, knows Kurdistan like my dear friend, Brigadier General Ernest Audino, U.S. Army (Ret.), who spent a year imbedded as a combat advisor to the Kurdish forces. After his extraordinary career, he joined the London Center for Policy Research as a Senior Military Fellow. (Mister Tyrrell and I are Senior Fellows as well, but decidedly of the civilian variety.) Having set the stage just enough, I will now tiptoe into the wings and surrender the stage to the General’s commanding presence.
TAS: General, I know you not only have the inner workings of Kurdistan in your brain, the “country” is also in your heart…
GEA: Call me Ernie…
TAS: Well, yes, General, but I feel the weight and dignity of our Armed Forces is on your shoulders as we speak…
GEA: Call me Ernie. And I am not speaking for the Army, just sharing my personal opinion.
TAS: Ok, General… er, Ernie… stepping back from the noise for a moment, is sovereignty for Kurdistan a good idea? For itself? For Iraq? For the region?
GEA: Yes, and here’s a great reason from an American perspective… because Baghdad has become Tehran West.
When President Obama withdrew U.S. combat power from Iraq in 2012, Iran emerged as the dominant power in the gulf. Regaining a balance of power is in U.S. interest, but that means checking Iranian power, not accommodating it. The Iranians now dominate Baghdad and the southern 60% of the terrain in Iraq. How on Earth is it in our strategic interest to allow Iran to next dominate our Kurdish allies in the north of Iraq, too? It’s not.
Here’s the reality — the vast majority, if not all, of the Iraqi ministries are headed by Shia interests aligned with their co-religionists in Iran. The Iraqi Army is well over 75% Shia, probably more like 85%. On top of that, the Shia militias now number 110,000 men under arms. Tehran began building this force in 2014 after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a fatwa authorizing the raising of an expressly Shia army inside Iraq. The Shia militias and the Iraqi Army then used their participation in the operation to liberate Mosul to move significant Iranian-controlled combat power north and to the west of Mosul. An estimated 40,000 Iranian proxies remain in position, and they have no intention whatsoever of ever returning home. They are even building out two airstrips to the west of Mosul. All of this means Iranian proxy forces are consolidating on three sides of our Kurdish allies, and those forces are positioned to compel Kurdish behavior in the future. That serves no Western interest.
It gets worse. This expanded Shia footprint sets the foundation for an Iranian land-bridge into Syria. Tehran has a clear strategic motivation to extend its influence across Kurdish soil, into Syria, along the southern border of our NATO ally, Turkey, and all the way to the Russian naval base at Tartus on the Syrian shoreline of the Mediterranean and to the Syrian border with Tehran’s Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
In the face of all of this, some in Washington articulate the fantasy that a unified Iraq is the best counterbalance to Iran. No, a unified Iraq IS Iran.
Here’s a second reason — Kurdish energy reserves are large and have the potential to undermine Russian energy levers on our NATO allies in Brussels and Ankara. If Washington wants to help its allies help themselves, then that means loosening Moscow’s tether on themselves.
Here’s a third reason — a sovereign and independent Kurdistan instantly doubles the number of friendly democracies in the region.
TAS: Do you really see that Kurdistan can be a real democracy like Israel?
GEA: Just listen to the Kurds when they speak. They talk about enterprise, freedom, liberty, Western curricula, independent media, free markets and freedom of religion. They say things like, “I wish I was an American citizen, so I could vote for Donald Trump.” Yeah, that kind of democracy.
Here’s another point. ISIS will not be destroyed and kept that way without the Kurds. The Iraqi Army ran away from ISIS in 2014, while the Kurds stepped forward and made the difference.
And the Kurds did this while Baghdad restricted Coalition equipping of the peshmerga and ceased all constitutionally required federal funding to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Erbil hasn’t received a single dinar of the Iraqi budget since the day ISIS launched its offensive three years ago. What a coincidence.
Furthermore, the long war to defeat the prevailing jihadi ideology will be won by the triumph of moderation in a debate within Sunni Islam. The Kurds are a well-known moderate voice that is consistently resistant to jihadi ideology. Need proof? While the black flag of ISIS fluttered throughout Sunni areas across Iraq and Syria, it stopped dead at the border to Kurdish-controlled soil.
Still, ISIS as an organization is incapable of handing a strategic defeat to the USA, but if Tehran and Moscow displace U.S. interests in the region, that is most certainly a strategic reversal.
TAS: Do you think this was a good time to have a referendum? Do you see any good coming out of this vote, or really any change at all?
GEA: History says there never is a good time for a referendum on independence. Independence just happens, and the world keeps revolving. Things get tougher before they get better. We Americans know that very well. We began fighting for our independence in 1776, won it, and then argued with each other until we fully ratified a constitution in 1789.
The Kurds are more prepared for this day than any other recently independent country. When the Coalition No-Fly Zone pushed Saddam Hussein off Kurdish backs in 1991, the Kurds pursued democracy, formed an autonomous government, elected a parliament, set the foundation for an economy, maintained armed forces and developed diplomatic relations. In essence they now have 26 years of practice for their Independence Day.
TAS: Do you think Erdogan will really pile on the sanctions? Would he go as far as embargos, blockades, direct attacks?
GEA: Erdogan will very likely impose some sanctions, but his public message is tempered by practical reality. Look at it this way, Ankara raised similar protests in 1991 when the Kurds of Iraq gained autonomy and began running their own affairs. This was supposed to be the end of the world! Instead, Turkey became the largest investor by far in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Shopping malls, swanky motels, top-notch restaurants, housing developments, you name it. Then the Turks and the Kurds built an oil pipeline north across the Turkish border. Rather than destabilizing, it turned out to be tremendously unifying. The Turks make money off each barrel pumped north, the Kurds make money off each barrel, and each side is motivated to keep that oil flowing. Sure, Erdogan’s threats can have some effect, but today the oil is still flowing, the borders are still open and flights are still flying.
TAS: Do you think Netanyahu will follow through on recognition? Would he stand up to Trump if he tells him directly not to do it? And do you think that recognition is meaningful to any third parties, outside the Israel-Kurdistan relationship?
GEA: No one can know what Mr. Netanyahu will ultimately decide, but we are still a long way away from a Kurdish declaration of independence. We won’t even have the results of the referendum for another 48 hours or so. The Kurdish leadership tells me the expected overwhelming yes vote only enables them to negotiate for their independence. Is that a year? Two years? Who knows? Whenever it comes, however, history suggests recognition will follow. It might come gradually one or two at a time, but the international community cannot oppose it forever. As soon as a heavy-hitter like the USA formally recognizes it, many others will follow.
TAS: Is it possible, and if possible is it likely, that the Kurds will end up in a worse position because of this move?
GEA: Well, let’s first look at their current position. They are part of a country unified in name only and headed by a regime in Baghdad chronically unable to exercise the basic functions of national governance. The USA has invested fortunes of blood and treasure into Baghdad in an effort to help it stand on its own two feet and play nice with everyone, but it hasn’t worked. The regime in Baghdad cannot defend Iraqi borders. It cannot provide for the security of its citizens. It cannot maintain a judiciary independent of the ayatollahs, its parliament is unable to act, and it cannot be trusted to fairly distribute federal revenues.
The Iraqi Constitution, for example, expressly provides for the allocation of federal revenues to the regional governments, the Kurds to receive 17%, but Baghdad has never disbursed the full amount to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Worse, still, when ISIS attacked three years ago Iraq canceled all federal disbursements to Kurdistan. The Kurds have been leading the ground war against ISIS, while safeguarding about 2 million ethnic and religious minorities fleeing predation elsewhere in Iraq, and doing so without a single dinar from Baghdad. No one flees to Baghdad. That speaks volumes.
The vast majority of Iraq is now functionally annexed by Iran. The reality is Kurdistan is not leaving Iraq — Iraq is leaving Kurdistan.
Border closings are threatened, but closings cause pain on both sides of the border, and eventually return to the status quo. Iraq’s threat to close the Kurds’ two commercial airports has made things tense, but as of today flights are still flying. Threats from Ankara to stop its imports of Kurdish oil, however, are of real concern, as the Kurdish economy has grown wholly dependent on them. Still, Ankara has a need for Kurdish oil.
Of course, military threats exist, too. The Kurds feel neither Ankara nor Baghdad are as likely to initiate clashes as are the Shia militias. The peshmerga I’ve talked to and visited recently on the battlefield are prepared and confident. The Kurdish will to defend their soil dramatically exceeds the will of an Iranian proxy to fight for it. Despite weeks of threats from Turkey, Iran and Iraq, the referendum was completed without a single instance of violence.
Ernie Audino, Brigadier General US Army (Ret), is a Senior Military Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. He is also the only American general officer to have served a full year in Iraq as a combat advisor embedded with Kurdish peshmerga forces.