Washington’s Biggest Strategic Blunder

 

Kurds in Iraq rally for independence
Kurds in Iraq rally for independence (Photo: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. is still poking the eyes of the Kurds in Iraq for their referendum on independence, with the State Department declaring that the Kurds’ vote is “illegitimate” and that America opposes an independent state for the Kurds.

“The vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” said U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders defended the Trump Administration’s position using the absurd defense that a unified Iraq can “push back on Iran.”

Question: How has that worked since out since 2003?

The U.S. already took a position closer to that of Iran, Turkey, Qatar and various Islamists by expressing its staunch opposition to the Kurdish referendum, which was merely an expression of the desire for independence and not even a formal declaration of statehood.

Then, as the pro-American Kurds celebrated in the streets and enjoyed casting ballots in a region where many cannot, the U.S. State Department rubbed salt in the wound by expressing its “great disappointment” when it could have said nothing or moved on. Iran’s propaganda outlets were happy to broadcast the U.S.’ comments.

And now—even after the referendum has already happened with 93% of Iraqi Kurds voting in favor of independence—we’re telling three million Kurds who cast ballots that their emotional and historical actions are “illegitimate.”

This doesn’t make any sense. In fact, it’s stupid.

Israel, on the other hand, is openly supporting Kurdish statehood. Not just the referendum, but actual statehood.

The U.S., meanwhile, is incoherently endorsing eventual Palestinian statehood while actively opposing the very principle of Kurdish statehood.

This is the biggest difference of opinion between the U.S. and Israel since the Obama Administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and blaming of Israel for the Middle East peace process’ failure.

In fact, the Trump Administration is blaming the Kurds for undermining the war on ISIS just like the Obama Administration blamed Israel for undermining the war on terrorism.

As our Kurdish affairs analyst Zach Huff pointed out, the argument that the Kurdish referendum jeopardized progress against ISIS has no basis in the reality on the ground.

“The only territory still held by ISIS and bordering Iraqi Kurdistan is the Hawija pocket, which the [Kurdish] Peshmerga are set to liberate as early as this month. ISIS’s abilities to wage offensive operations was eradicated long ago. Perhaps ISIS is now just a convenient excuse,” he wrote.

As mentioned by Huff, what’s more damaging to the fight against ISIS is that “America’s $22 million in direct aid to the Iraqi Kurdish forces runs dry this month, while cash, arms and humanitarian aid still flows to Baghdad and the Iranian-backed Islamist proxies with which it operates in tandem. It is unknown when or if additional American aid for the Kurds will arrive.”

The other argument for the State Department’s position is that the U.S. needs Turkey, Iraq and Qatar because of our military presences there, such as the Incirlik air base in Turkey and the Al-Udeid air base in Qatar.

Those who take that position have it backwards. The existence of those bases should make them cater to us because we are protecting them, not the other way around.

The perceived dependency upon those bases only makes it more urgent for us to relocate our bases to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria and the United Arab Emirates, which is offering itself as an alternative to Qatar.

The leader of the Kurdistan National Assembly in Syria told the Clarion Project that the West “need[s] to promote the values that they preach and practice. When they do that, the only solution is the Kurds, who can stop the Shia Crescent and prevent the Neo-Ottoman Empire from forming.”

Siding with Kurdistan also makes economic sense. Its economy is growing and it is often referred to as the “next Dubai.” Analysts are upbeat about its prospects next year. Those who visit there, as I did earlier this year, can feel the sense of excitement and opportunity, that of a confident, modern population eager to wow the world with its success in a region where the news fuels perpetual pessimism.

Iraqi Kurdistan is described as “one of the most pro-American places on the planet.”

Their vision—one spoken with passion and out in the open—is to have an independent state so they can ally with the West, enjoy peace with Israel and stand against Islamism and the regimes in Iran, Turkey and Syria. The words “secular democracy” roll off the tongues of average, young Kurds unlike American peers where such vocabulary is only confined to the intellectuals in political science clubs.

The Kurds are proud pioneers of women’s rights in the region. In Syria, Kurds are fighting side-by-side with Christians. Syrian Kurdish forces even declared their “deep respect for human rights, including the rights of homosexuals” in a time and place where executing gays is still popular.

Polling shows that 75% of Kurds believe Iraq would be better of it did more to separate religion and politics (only 22% disagreed). Only 11% of Kurds agree that the government should only have laws derived from Sharia.

An independent Kurdistan is the best prospect for a Muslim-majority country in the region that opposes Islamism and secular authoritarians who usually end up supporting Islamist terrorists and extremist propaganda anyway.

The Kurds have shown that they are happy to be a bold, combative yet responsible voice in the Islamist and anti-Western wilderness.

When Al-Azhar University in Egypt condemned the referendum, the Kurds punched the most influential Sunni religious institution for its “crocodile tears.” The Kurds said that they have done more to help Sunnis in Iraq than Al-Azhar has.

The Kurdish Regional Government even went so far as to tell Al-Azhar, “Do not lecture us on coexistence. We are the leaders in this field.”

“Why would it be halal for you, the Arabs, to have more than 20 countries and haram for us, the Kurds, whose population is more than 40 million to have a state? What would this do to your position?” the KRG said.

The best example of the Kurds’ boldness and modernism is the issue of peace with Israel, publicly rejecting the main jihadist narrative calling for its destruction and demonization.

Unlike Arab states who secretly cooperate with Israel while publicly bashing Jews and the “Zionist conspiracy against Islam,” the Kurds are openly friendly to Israel and proud of their historical ties with Jews.

You’ll hear this sentiment on the streets and from Kurdish officials. Last year, the Kurds boasted of holding Iraq’s first Holocaust Remembrance Day to combat the region’s pervasive Holocaust denial.

As Aki Peritz writes in the Huffington Post, President Barazani of Iraqi Kurdistan has publicly welcomed the opening of an Israeli consulate in his region and said, “Establishing relations with between the Kurds and Israel is not a crime.”

The second-most influential Kurdish leader, former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, infuriated Iraqi leaders by shaking the hand of the Israeli Defense Minister in 2008. He refused to apologize or resign as they demanded.

The Kurdish Foreign Minister relishes in how Kurdistan has been described as a “second Israel,” decrying how “this island of democracy [Israel] was seen as a germ.”

“We have no problems with Israel. They have not harmed us. We can’t be hating them because Arabs hate them,” Falah Mustafa Bakir said.

For decades, the Kurds have matched their words with actions by having extensive ties with Israel and actively cultivating a friendly relationship. A new Kurdish pipeline is delivering oil to Israel.

The peace between stateless Kurds and Israel is even stronger than that of the states of Egypt and Jordan. As explained by Seth Franzman, an expert in Israel who travels often to Iraqi Kurdistan, “There is warmth on the street level.”

If for no other reason, President Trump should endorse Kurdish independence because of the direction of the political winds.

Democrats like New York Senator Chuck Schumer and Alan Dershowitz agree with conservative Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ) who has introduced a bill to endorse Kurdish statehood. Conservative Reps. Steve King (R-IA) and Ralph Lee Abraham (R-LA) have signed on as cosponsors. Libertarian Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) endorsed a Kurdish state back in 2015.

A time of choosing is coming for the United States. Israel has chosen the side of the Kurds. The Iranian Supreme Leader is saying that Iran, Turkey and Iraq must jointly act against the Kurds.

If the U.S. doesn’t want to endorse immediate independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, then it can at least make it an official objective of U.S. policy as it has with the Palestinians. And the State Department certainly doesn’t have to keep unnecessarily jabbing the Kurds over the referendum.

As Zach Huff wrote, “In Kurdistan—America’s staunchest regional ally alongside Israel—this deep respect for America and President Trump is beginning to fray. The Kurdish babies and businesses named after President Trump is a trend that likely ended” after the U.S. condemned the referendum.

The Trump Administration’s declination to embrace Kurdish aspirations for statehood is its biggest strategic blunder so far and, very possibly, of the rest of its time in office.

 

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Ryan Mauro
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org's Shillman Fellow and national security analyst and an adjunct professor of counter-terrorism. He is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio.