National Security & Defense

Recognize Kurdistan and Arm It, against ISIS in Northern Iraq

A Kurdish peshmerga soldier near Kirkuk, July 2014 (Getty Images)

In April, several members of Congress met with Kurdish, Christian, and Yazidi leaders at the Kurdish Mission in Washington to discuss the political, military, and humanitarian crisis and what could be done. The question of Kurdish independence lingered unspoken for much of the evening, but was at last broached. A Kurdish representative reiterated the admonition of Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, that the Kurds would give Iraq’s government “one more chance.” The U.S. government, on the other hand, apparently has infinite patience. If the Kurds wait for America to give them its permission to seek independence, they are certain to wait a long time — a point conveyed at the April meeting.

The recent fall of Ramadi to ISIS saw more weapons sent by the U.S. captured by ISIS. According to a report by correspondent Jamie Dettmer, Iraqi Special Forces were the first to flee in the face of ISIS. In what is increasingly taking the form of a pattern, the U.S. government has supplied weapons to the Iraqi central government, only to see the Iraqi military’s staggering incompetence result in the strengthening of ISIS. Where American blood was shed, the flags of ISIS are now firmly planted in the ground. Family members of soldiers killed fighting in Anbar Province cry out for justice. It is a cry shared by many in the region, very much rooted in the history of Western involvement in the Middle East.

The principal source of the problem is both simple and demonstrable and it is this: America’s government clings to the notion that Iraq is a nation-state. It is not. It is essentially an arbitrary construct that unnaturally binds together peoples who are divided along lines of religion, ethnicity, history, language, culture, and even the most fundamental precepts of pluralistic democracy: a notion of the common good and common interest. This is the legacy of the 1916 Asia Minor Agreement, now referred to simply as Sykes-Picot, for the British and French diplomats who drafted it. When its secret terms were published by the Bolsheviks, the Arab leaders who had fought with the Allies to overthrow the Ottoman Turks regarded it as a bitter betrayal. A century later, it is still regarded in the Middle East as a symbol of Western perfidy. In Washington, policymakers cling to this fiction of Iraq. They do so at the expense of lives in the Middle East and the dishonor of American blood shed there.

Though they were cynical, the British and French did not, to their credit, venture into the Middle East blinded by quixotic dreams of democratizing tribal societies. The impossibility of imposing pluralistic democracy on a tribal society cannot be overemphasized. This is at the very heart of America’s failure in Iraq. Americans, whether policy wonks or laymen, seem incapable of comprehending what tribalism means in practice and why only post-tribal societies can sustain pluralism. (Until one understands this fact of tribalism, one cannot understand America’s failures in the Middle East.) Put simply, America took the lessons of rebuilding Germany and Japan — both post-tribal societies — and applied them, improperly, in the Middle East.

The most immediate consequence of the Iraq fiction is that America cannot arm those who are actually willing to fight ISIS: the Kurds. This is because U.S. law forbids direct arm shipments to groups other than recognized governments. Shipments to the Kurds must go through the Iraqi government in Baghdad, which means that the arms in question either do not arrive or are pilfered along the way.

Since the end of World War I, there has been talk of an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a nation. (Though spread across Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran, the Kurdistan Regional Government operates with significant autonomy.) Unlike the Iraqi military, which is larger and better equipped, the Kurds have fought and continue to fight ISIS. The Kurdish peshmerga, who are bearing the brunt of the fight against ISIS in northern Iraq, have proven to be more effective than the Iraqi military.

U.S. recognition of Kurdistan would allow the United States to arm the Kurds directly — and see ISIS driven out of northern Iraq, liberating villages to which Christians and Yazidis might return.

ISIS is not going to die with a whimper. Any illusions that a second Sunni Awakening — this time spontaneous, rather than purchased – will be the undoing of ISIS should by now be dispelled. (To be sure, al-Maliki’s government alienated the Sunni tribal leaders who had spearheaded the counterinsurgency in 2006–7, and so they are unlikely to trust the government in Baghdad again.) Leaders in Washington are increasingly recognizing that the Kurds are the best hope for defeating ISIS.

Two recent amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) propose better equipping of the Kurds. The first, by Representative Trent Franks (R., Ariz.), would put pressure on Baghdad to better arm the Kurds and other local security entities to fight ISIS; this amendment has passed the House and awaits approval by the Senate. A second NDAA amendment, proposed by Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R., Neb.), would include Christian militias in the enumerated security forces, along with Sunni tribal and security groups. Fortenberry’s amendment, despite bipartisan support and no opposition from the House Armed Services Committee, was rejected by the Rules Committee. It may yet be reintroduced in the Senate bill. 

Many members of Congress have privately moved on from the view of the Obama administration and the State Department that a unified Iraq will somehow quell worsening sectarian violence. Indeed, it is precisely the fiction of Iraq that is exacerbating the violence. Moreover, the Kurds have demonstrated a will to fight ISIS, even though American military aid is going principally to Baghdad. This has obvious appeal to members who are tired of being embarrassed — repeatedly — by the Iraqi government. While many Christians and Yazidis have fled Iraq, others remain behind, mostly displaced in Kurdistan; many of these are prepared to fight alongside the Kurds in northern Iraq and have formed militias since being driven from their towns and villages in Nineveh in 2014.

If the Kurdish people vote for independence, America is certain to recognize Kurdistan, though it is likely they will be beaten to it by Israel. Such recognition would allow the United States to arm the Kurds directly — and see ISIS driven out of northern Iraq, liberating villages to which Christians and Yazidis might return. Moreover, the Kurds have given assurances to the Christians of self-administration, self-defense, and survival in Nineveh — an issue increasingly on the radar of the American people. This would also free Iraq (and U.S. policymakers) from the shackles of Sykes-Picot, which in turn could open the door to a federated Iraq, with emerging local governance, greater stability, and a zone of separation between Shia and Sunni sectors. But it appears that here America will not be leading, not even from behind. Rather, the Kurds must take their fate into their own hands.

The anger of veterans and their families ought to be directed not at a single administration but at an entire generation of politicians, policymakers, military commanders, and analysts. It might also be directed at French and British diplomats who, a century ago, created a fiction in Mesopotamia. It is not merely the Arabs who were the victims of Sykes-Picot. America has paid a terrible price for that fiction as well.

Andrew Doran served on the State Department’s policy planning staff from 2018 to 2021. He is currently a senior research fellow at the Philos Project.


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