From a Kurdish point of view, the long-delayed referendum on independence came at a relatively good time this past September. The new US president was in the past outspoken in support of the Kurds, and supposedly tough on Iran. Three years of war against ISIL were bearing fruit, the final pockets of ISIL control falling one after the other, while the Kurds bore more than their share of the bloody costs. More importantly, on the ground, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were solidly in control of much of the disputed ethnically mixed areas in Northern and Western Iraq.
A month later, KRG (Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq) President Massoud Barazani’s decision to follow through with the referendum looks like a mistake. The US administration has been officially neutral, but this neutrality was a severe blow for the Kurds, believing that ultimately the US would not oppose their struggle for self-determination. The Iraqi army’s surprisingly fast success in retaking Kirkuk, a long-contested city and region rich in oil, not only takes a precious Kurdish asset, but undermines the military prestige the Peshmerga have cultivated for decades. These disappointing developments are exacerbated by the (expected) threats from Turkey and Iran.
Though the situation looks dire, PM Netanyahu’s attempts to harness support for the Kurdish cause might not be doomed to failure. The Kurds have in their favor the physical control of territory beyond the official KRG area, and western-armed forces to hold it. The Iraqi forces are both drained from the anti-ISIL operations, and split between the US-backed ISF (Iraqi security forces) and various Shi’a militias, mainly backed by Iran. Turkey’s relations with two of its most important Western allies, the US and Germany, have had a hard few months; Erdogan might think twice before military intervention against the Kurds. And perhaps most importantly, Russia seems to view Kurdish independence positively, announcing investments in Kurdish oil and gas sectors – added onto historic ties and mutual enmity towards Turkey.
In this situation, tipping the scales in the Kurd’s favor may be possible indeed. A clear US stance in support of the Kurds will probably be enough; if made jointly with Russia it would deter Turkey and Iran from military action. Iraqi PM Abadi can only go so far against the US, having limited internal support. As the wars in Syria and Iraq are winding down, with Iran acting aggressively to cement its influence in both countries, a window to create a powerful ally hampering its efforts is still open – for now.
Apart from strategic reasoning, supporters of Israel, and Jews in general, should be outspoken in support of the Kurds for deep moral reasons. A people of 30 million have sought independence for at least a century, President Woodrow Wilson supporting their claim as early as 1919. Kurdish practice of religious tolerance and women’s rights, as well as their thankless loyalty to the west, make them a true friend and asset in a crumbling Middle East.
US ambiguity on Kurdish independence must stop now, and we as Jews must be their strongest advocates.