Are We Prepared to Defend an Independent Kurdistan?

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Over the last few days, I have raised several concerns about the Kurdish referendum. Some of these revolved around Iraqi Kurdistan’s own internal problems, but many others revolved around the potential reactions of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors.

I have advised a course of action that falls short of a full embrace of immediate Iraqi Kurdish independence.

Critics have responded with a number of arguments: Kurds say that bluster aside, the world will adjust to a new status quo no matter what. And, they may have a point with regard to Turkey.

Not only does Turkey stand to lose much more than it gains by cutting off Iraqi Kurdistan, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bluster seldom matches his actions.

Remember when he said, for example, he would never restore relations with Israel in the wake of the Mavi Marmara affairs until Israel lifted the blockade of Gaza? Ultimately, Erdogan folded.

Others draw parallels to American or Israeli independence. Shouldn’t a chance at liberty and national self-determination trump the hostility of established powers?

Indeed, sympathy to such arguments may be the primary reason why so many Americans and Israelis support Kurdish independence.

It’s hard to disagree with such arguments, but I do.

Not every legitimate secessionist cause succeeds. How many died in Biafra or Katanga, for example? Bangladesh deserved its independence but it came with a death toll far exceeding that of Syria.

Does Kurdistan have the strategic depth (or the support of a neighbor) as Bangladesh did?

GettyImages-854203322 A Syrian Kurd in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli on September 26, 2017, at a gathering in support of the independence referendum in Iraq's autonomous northern Kurdish region. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty

This is the reason why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support is so irresponsible — because it ends at the rhetorical and will not extend to the substantive should Iraqi Kurdistan have to fight an onslaught from any of its neighbors.

Nor, despite all the lionizing of the peshmerga , is it prepared for a more serious fight. Iraqi Kurdistan has no air force, and the peshmerga themselves are more corollaries of the hashd al-Shaabi militias than they are a modern army: They are divided along political lines and continue to act as political militias.

While they did fight Saddam Hussein’s regime to a stand-off, that was a guerrilla campaign that ceded the cities to Iraqi army control. While Kurdish leaders cite their contribution to the fight against ISIS, the Iraqi army and the Shi’ite militias have contributed as much if not more, sometimes without US air power.

I hope the Kurds realize their dream, but it is irresponsible to applaud the desire of the leadership to walk over a cliff, especially from the safety of Washington. For the politicians and supporters who truly support the right of Iraqi Kurdistan to become their own nation, it is simply not moral to do so without answering the question: Can they win? And would the United States really deploy the forces necessary to assist them?

Let’s not have a repeat of the 1975 disaster when the US encouraged the Kurds to rebel only to precipitously withdraw support. The Kurds deserve our transparency.

Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. He instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. He has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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