Kurdish aspirations for independence in Iraq faced the obstinate resistance of both regional and international actors which favoured the territorial integrity of Iraq. The rationale for their stance was that the independence of Kurdistan would undermine the stability of Iraq.
Regardless of whether such predictions were right or wrong, Iraq’s one and only stable region has nowbeen dragged into the persistent and endemic instability of the rest of the country. The political impasse that arose from both the intra-Kurdish conflict and Baghdad’s aggressive policy of controlling borders drove Iraqi Kurdistan swiftly into turbulence. The conditions in the Kurdish region are exacerbated by the newly imposed sanctions and negotiations over the 2018 Iraqi budget, which deepen the ongoing economic crisis.
Persistence of the international and regional powers’ “one-Iraq” policy has evidently resulted in the emergence of a “two-Iran” reality in the Middle East. The increasing Iranian influence over Baghdad throughout the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) concluded with Tehran’s proxies dominating the country’s “disputed areas” and Kurdistan proper. It is fair to claim that the future of Iraq is now in the hands of Iran today, rather than any other regional and/or international actor.
What probably surprised many was the decisive role which the head of Iran’s Quds Force (a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC), Qassem Suleimani, played in the Iraqi forces’ intervention in Kirkuk just two days after US President Donald Trumpimposed a new set of sanctions on the IRGC for “its support for terrorism”.
It was also quite surreal to hear the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declare that the “Iranian militias in Iraq [need] to go home” a week after Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) first entered and took control of Kirkuk while the United States stood by indifferent, if not supportive. Baghdad’s response to Tillerson clarified the expanding borders of Iranian power in Iraq: Baghdad acknowledged Suleimani’s role as a “military advisor” to the PMUs and declared that “no country can interfere in Iraq’s affairs”.
In light of the US-backed developments in Saudi Arabia that directly target Iran and its allies in the region, it is all the more curious that Washington chose to abandon the Kurds and leave the Iraqi political space wide open to Tehran.
To the US, peace means territorial integrity
It is essential to remind everyone that the US has never succeeded in brokering a durable peace agreement for any of the conflicts in the Middle East – even if Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to that end.
The US has registered relative success in containing conflicts within given territories. Safeguarding the existing political borders in the Middle East has been the US’ foremost priority, and the “stability” that peace agreements would bring has been defined merely as a state of territorial integrity.
Washington’s reaction towards the crisis that broke out in the Middle East due to the Arab Spring was therefore not an exception. Since the cross-border nature of the Arab Spring that motivated the masses was, above all else, a threat to existing political borders, the US and the international community as a whole tried to maintain “stability” once again by reinforcing the territorial integrity of each state and/or by continuing support for the dictatorial regimes.
In this regard, it is fair to claim that ISIL was designated a global threat not merely because of its brutal acts. The international coalition was formed once ISIL “abolished” the political borders between Syria and Iraq by establishing control over a contiguous stretch of territory.
In the end, the fight against ISIL was an attempt to contain the conflict within Iraq and Syria by safeguarding the existing political borders, but nothing more. There is no remarkable effort to establish peace in the post-ISIL era; there is only an attempt to rebuild the former status quo that actually triggered the emergence of ISIL.
Cornering the Kurds, boosting Iran
Today, evidently it is the Kurds’ turn to be pushed back into their proper place within the existing political borders. Until the Arab Spring, the long-standing Kurdish “problem” remained a domestic issue for Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. But the war in Syria and the rise of ISIL transformed the Kurdish issue into a regional one, as existing political borders that had cut through Kurdish territory vanished.
In the wake of such an existential transformation, the fruitless struggle for democratic rights shifted to a struggle for the defence of Kurdistan that paved the way for Kurdish aspirations for either independent or autonomous self-rule. And, the US was, in fact, the most important contributor to that process even if it had never supported publicly either of those Kurdish desires.
It was the US that supported the Kurds of Iraq and Syria to take control of more than 210km of the Iraqi-Syrian border. Furthermore, the US encouraged Iraqi and Syrian Kurds to cooperate, for instance in Kobane in 2014, and even initiated meetings in Duhok and Erbil to build a political and military partnership between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Rojava administration.
In this context, the contradictory US attitudes towards recent developments in Iraq are indeed a revision of a broader contradictory policy concerning its role in the wake of a new Kurdish political equilibrium in the Middle East. Kurds – in Iraq and elsewhere – interpreted US overreaction to the Kurdish referendum as a sign that they should not go beyond their allotted boundaries. For some Syrian Kurds, US actions signalled that perhaps the timing was wrong and that it should be a US decision.
It is worth noting that if the intention was merely maintaining stability in Iraq, then the US could have easily managed the Kurdish referendum process in a peaceful manner. The KRG president at the time, Masoud Barzani himself repeatedly highlighted that the referendum did not mean an actual declaration of independence, that it was an expression of the Kurdish will.
The US, however, preferred not only to trigger the tensions which eventually paved the way for greater Iranian influence in Iraq but also to sit back and watch the destruction of the KRG presidency. Yet the KRG has so far gained a symbolic representation value and capacity in the name of all Kurds beyond Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders.
Consequently, it is doubtful whether it would be possible to push the Kurdish issue back into the existing political borders. What is clear, however, is that the political catastrophe in Iraq indicates not only the failure of the Kurds but also of US policy in the Middle East.