Seth Frantzman, in a recent article, analyzes US position of neutrality on Baghdad takeover of Kirkuk, and further silence on the alleged human rights violations, and punitive actions such as the shut down of Kurdish press, Kurdistan24 and Rudaw. In sum, the thinking is that encouraging Iraqi nationalism, which is based in substantial part in anti-Kurdish sentiment, US will turn Iraq away from Iranian influence, and unify the country under the Saudi Arabia aegis against the spread of Iranian influence. The idea there is that if the Shi’a Iraqi government aligns with the Sunni KSA, together they can counter Iran. And indeed, Iraq has signed a corresponding defense treaty with KSA. However, that is not a meaningful agreement for two reasons: first, Iraq will do just about anything to play all sides, including the US, which has been arming its army. Second, KSA is far away, and Iran is close. Abadi and the Islamic Republic has been getting along quite nicely, and Abadi invited Iran to participate in takeover of Kirkuk. It clearly does not see Iran as a threat, though KSA does. And when forced to choose between its Shi’a neighbor, which has helped Iraq with the Kurdish issue and the Sunni Saudi Arabia, which is known to sympathize with Iraq’s Sunni population, tribal and religious considerations will prevail over piece of paper.
The fact that the United States does not realize that shows the extent of ignorance of our foreign policy leaders of the cultures, which they are now trying to bring together through fictitious borders and imaginary alliances. The British, when they did the same, at least cynically imposed divisions to perpetuate their own power. The US leaders actually believe that this policy is going to work and that it’s in the best interests of the Middle East and the United States. It is quite amazing. This vision of a Baghdad-Riyadh alliance puts aside the dream of a free and democratic Kurdistan. The reason for this groupthink at top levels may be deeply rooted in the underlying psychological need to stay consistent. In other words, the US has already invested so heavily into Baghdad, that having realign its policy now would be equivalent to conceding defeat. In other words, the excuse that this is all about American interests is rational, but the reasoning behind is not. Otherwise, the weight that the US would be giving to other considerations would be at least equal to its own wishful thinking to see this implausible alliance of Iraq and Saudi Arabia to work for more than five minutes, until Iran decides that it should be otherwise.
Much has already been said and written about the potential boons of an independent Kurdistan for the United States – a trading partner with a vibrant economy, a buffer state against Iran’s and Turkey’s expansionist ambitions, a new model of indigenous evolutionary liberalization, a friendly state, open to Western values and partnership with Israel. All of these potential benefits, in the eyes of the generals, who are spearheading US foreign policy in the Fertile Crescent, is of less interest than having Iraq not be quite-so-pro-Iran. There is no official analysis on how such calculations are figured, but there is also a darker side of this conversation that likewise does not appear to figure into the equation: the potential for the radicalization of the Kurdish region. Neither friends nor critics are particularly interested in touching on this sensitive topics. Those, who favor independent Kurdistan focus the bulk of their attention on the perceived betrayal by the US – in other words, a valid, but largely emotional talking point, whereas the critics cite the dubious benefits of yet another tribal Muslim state at the cost of weakening another ally – Iraq. The underlying working assumption, however, is that the US decisionmakers are correct in one way: Kurdish independence will bring greater instability than Kurdish “remain”, at least in the short term.
Such position relies on the erroneous assumption that Iraq is open to various potential positions, and will pivot in the desirable direction if only the United States will do what Baghdad claims needs to be done to earn its favor – return the oil fields to Abadi’s forces without a question, stay moot on the Kurds, encourage peace talks through gentle rhetoric, and ignore the Iran-backed militias and IRGC presence in the vicinity. If only the US does all these things, at some point, all will be well. IRGC will not do much damage beyond security the territory for Iraq and ensuring that the rebellious Kurds will not tempt its own Kurdish population; Turkey is all talk; ISIS has been taken care of, and US can reap the boons of its cynical wisdom. Such wishful thinking is no more practical than believing that Kurdish independence will come without a bloody fight against a variety of regional forces. That’s not a commentary on the morality or benefits or likelihood of such a move; that’s just a statement of logical observation based in the Middle Eastern dynamics. You get what you are willing to fight for, and only if you win with overwhelming force. In the meantime, US is so focused on its own line of reasoning that it ignores major red flags that undermine its position.
First, Iraq has already and openly pivoted to Iran. The actions of the last few weeks demonstrate it amply. US reasoning that by sacrificing Kurdistan it can stop Iraq from growing closer to Iran is not only mistaken; it is nothing short of appeasement. Iran’s interest is regional dominance. Abadi, if he wants to stay in power in the region, needs to abide by Iran’s decisionmaking. It will, therefore, cooperate to whatever extent necessary that it is seen as a fully ally, reliable in supporting Iran’s ambitions. Iran will not stop at building IRGC military basis and headquarters in Kirkuk, nor does it make it any sense to stop when there is no resistance from anyone.
Second, Iran’s presence in the Kurdistan area far exceeds what can be gauged from the coverage, especially after Kurdistan24 and Rudaw were shut down. According to one source, Iran has as many as 700 secret houses in Suleimanya alone. If that’s accurate, it’s quite plausible that Iran has extensive presence, both overt and clandestine, in every corner of Kurdistan. And it is there to stay, long-term. From disputed territory between Baghdad and Erbil, Kirkuk province are becoming occupied territories, essentially colonized by Iran. If Iran continues to grow its military presence in the area, and there’s every reason to believe that without a war, Iran is not going anywhere, the next step is indoctrination of the local population – ranging from forced conversions to political brainwashing.
It may already be building schools, whereas Western educational opportunities in the region are woefully missing. Furthermore, with Baghdad banning all commercial flights in and out of Erbil, and potentially cutting off access to Syrian and Turkish overpasses, Kurds are not only economically isolated, but become wholly dependent on Baghdad and Tehran for humanitarian aid, educational maintenance, and even the news.And Iran is likely to radicalize the local Shi’a population through joint educational programming. The religious element may prevail over tribal concerns, if Iran is seen as an economic benefactor, rather than an oppressor to the Iraqi majority. Meanwhile, it is taking every step to show who’s the boss. Iran is opening up its border with Kurdistan – that is a sign that the regime has achieved a decisive military and psychological victory. It has nothing to fear from the Kurds.
At the same time, however, the support of nationalist sentiments among Iraqis is taking a turn less towards unity and more into anti-Kurdish xenophobia. Already, a Kurdish journalist was stabbed to death in Kirkuk. Iranian militias, not Iraqi forces, arrested dozens of young Kurds in a cafe in Kirkuk. Their fate is unenviable, as anyone, familiar with the brutality of the regime and its treatment of rebellious ethnic minorities will testify. And religious minorities all over the Kurdish region are threatened by the IRGC and the Iran=backed militias. Jewish and Christian sites near Al Qosh are in danger. Multiple Christian and Yazidi groups have expressed concern. Militias are on full alert protecting civilians, yet they are outnumbered and outgunned by the well-equipped Iraqi forces, and the Iran=backed militias that are not answerable to Abadi’s command. This destabilization is precisely what US support for national unity was supposed to prevent. Instead, it is turning into the scapegoating and vendetta against the Kurds.
Third, these divisions are likely to be exploited by Sunni extremist groups, like Al Qaeda and remnants of ISIS and their ilk. Seemingly defeated, these groups await opportunity for strife in order to make a triumphant comeback, sow discord, and take advantage of other violent situations. And ideological extremists will surely take the opportunity to appeal to the disenfranchised groups, proselytize among embittered and marginalized Kurdish peripheral regions, and go after every resentful person or group left hopeless after the takeover of Kirkuk.
Worse still, if Iraq continues to try to destroy Kurdish nationalism and sense of identity, as it’s doing now, the resistance that will arise will become increasingly radical and violent, and the potential for militant action, all the way to terrorism against civilians is not to be ruled out. We have seen the way the Soviet Union had sown chaos among Turkish Kurds, eliminating all nationalist groups except for the PKK, and turning PKK into a Soviet terrorist group (which after several decades finally reformed, but not before costing many lives of innocent civilians in the process). Interestingly, Russia is moving back into Kurdistan, and is seeking a closer relationship with the Kurds. It’s also looking to utilize them more in Syria. That Russia will use this opportunity to play on the anti-American backlash through what is widely perceived as betrayal is quite obvious.
To make a long story short, the downside to the chimeric US strategy involving the one-sided coddling of Baghdad to the exclusion of all other interested parties, is that instead of building bulwarks against extremists, including Iran, which is the whole goal of this exercise, the US is actually making active enemies out of absolutely everyone in the region, strengthening the potential for extremism, and allowing radical actors to assume the vacuum of leadership, all in the name of unity and the US interests. But the region united by extremism is not in the US interests at all, and neither is giving up opportunities for economic investments and partnerships fall into the hands of Russia and Iran, which have not done anything positive with any place they have ever been involved in.
The administration should snap out of this dangerous delusion quickly, and start drawing and enforcing boundaries for its “ally” Baghdad, which include, first and foremost, getting Iran and out of the picture completely, and only then creating positive bilateral and equanimeous conditions for further negotiations. It should send a clear signal to Kurds that their identity is recognized and respected, and to all other actors, that US has a central role to play in the region, and that chaos and extremism of any sort is not an option and will not be tolerated – not after all the lives the US has sacrificed to get to where we are today. Most importantly, the US should remember that alliances among former enemies are temporary, and for that reason Iraqi-Saudi alliance cannot be relied upon to last.
But strong long-term relationship among groups of people who have a baseline of common interests, values, and a history of fighting together for common goals can endure and move in the most positive direction. We should not continue following the same failed policy of putting all our eggs in one basket (in this case, Abadi), only to be bitterly disappointed and face new crisis yet again. We have the luxury of hindsight to make better, more informed decisions, and the richness of our experience to build a better, more secure future for ourselves, and the world that we want to live in.