America desperately needs a strategy to deal with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq before we lose our influence in the region. This strategy should be based on creating more stable political structures and should also require limited U.S. military involvement.
A powerful first step would be to encourage, then endorse, a free and independent Kurdish state. It can serve as an example of good governance that serves its people and also become an ally we can rely on in an extremely volatile region.
It is reasonable to question whether such a state is politically possible. But amidst all the concern over the resurgence of violence in Iraq between Sunni extremists and the largely Shia government, the Kurds have created a new reality on the ground. Kurdish Peshmerga forces now occupy the oil center of Kirkuk after Iraqi military forces abandoned the city. That completes their control of the northern oil fields and the pipeline shipping oil to Turkey. Although irregulars, the Peshmerga are the most competent fighting forces in Iraq and they have a good chance of holding their gains.
Another factor pointing to the potential viability of this new state is the delivery of a million barrels of Kurdish oil to Israel by way of Turkey. The Kurds recently signed a 50-year agreement to sell oil to the Turks, but were involved in a bitter dispute with the Iraqi government, which claims sole authority to sell oil. Baghdad’s loss of sovereign control of the regions outside the Shi’a heartlands leaves it unable to stop the shipments, and the Kurds have proven they can deliver on their deal with Turkey.
The arrangement with Turkey includes a major policy shift for the government in Ankara, which had long opposed the idea of an independent Kurdistan. Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for the Turkish Justice and Development Party, told a Kurdish newspaper this month, “The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in.” The Turkish government has previously opposed a partitioning of Iraq so this change, along with the oil deal, offers an unprecedented opportunity for the Kurds to make the move they have always wanted and declare a free state.
The more difficult question is whether the new Kurdish state should encompass all of what is commonly known as Kurdistan. That includes not just the portions of Iraq they currently govern, but parts of Turkey, Iran and Syria. It seems possible that Turkey has already resigned itself to the idea and sees the Kurds as a reliable trading partner and a buffer from the chaos in Iraq. It is much less likely that Iran and Syria would be so sanguine regarding the situation. But that is not a reason to shy away from the greater Kurdistan solution. Neither of those countries is acting in good faith with us on any number of issues and a reminder that we can still act as the strong horse could actually help that.
The United States should encourage and back this declaration fully. We should recognize the state and establish an embassy once it is made. The truth is that the U.S. has few legitimate allies in the region, but a Kurdish free state would create one. We developed a large amount of good will with them by enforcing no-fly zones that stopped Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks on their population. The Kurds welcomed American forces during the Iraq war and provided some of the most reliable forces that fought alongside us during that long conflict. U.S. support for a Kurdish state could cement that relationship and provide us with an actual partner and friend in the most volatile region in the world. It would also provide a secure base from which we could operate Special Forces or drone-strike missions to constrain the fighting in the other parts of Iraq.
The second step is to lock down the conflict in the south using enough air power to prevent major troop movements and enforce a cease-fire. Then we can bring the legitimate parties, which does not include ISIS, to the bargaining table. We can help broker an arrangement between the government in Baghdad and the Sunni tribes who were our partners during the Awakening and the surge.
During the surge, these tribes turned their allegiance toward the government in Baghdad in return for promises of fair treatment and reconciliation. The rapid collapse of the Iraqi state in the Sunni regions is largely the result of the government not acting fairly toward its citizens there. The United States promised to serve as guarantor for many of these agreements. When we withdrew our forces, we failed to oversee the faithful execution of those promises. As a consequence, we bear some of the blame for the current situation in Iraq.
A political solution where our Awakening-era allies among the Sunni tribes are returned to power is another strategically valuable outcome. This may or may not mean a free state for them, depending on the course of the negotiations. It needs to at least provide significant autonomy, as the Shi’a-led government has proven it will not fairly guard the interests of its minority populations. It must also be a solution the powerful Sunni tribes feel they have an interest in defending.
More Sunni autonomy will also provide a buffer between the Iranian-influenced regions of Iraq and the Levant. The Iranians have powerful influence in the regions of Iraq populated by Shi’a Muslims and their defense of the government in Baghdad has only strengthened their hand. But they also support terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, in the Levant. Other Sunni nations, especially Saudi Arabia, are gravely concerned by Iran’s influence. A zone led by our Sunni Awakening allies would be calming and gain the support of the Saudis and other Gulf Arab states.
The chance to contain this conflict inside the traditional borders of Iraq was lost when their government betrayed its promises to its people after we abandoned the country. There is no reason to believe that changing the prime minister can repair the trust that was squandered. While ISIS needs to be stopped, we should not forget that our greater concern is not ISIS but Iran. We must steer very clear of anything resembling an alliance with the Iranians, which would legitimize their efforts with the appearance of powerful international support.
Encouraging and endorsing a Kurdish free state would provide a strong ally for the U.S. where we can truly use one. Locking down the conflict in Iraq would push the government in Baghdad and the Sunni tribes to negotiate. These strategic initiatives provide a roadmap to a more stable Iraq and a more peaceful region.