WASHINGTON — Over the past decade, the United States has worked with Kurdish authorities by funneling support through the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. Within the last few weeks however, a fundamental shift has emerged in US engagement with the Kurdish semi-autonomous region.
Recognizing the dysfunction of Nouri Al Maliki’s regime in Baghdad, the US has begun directly providing military support and armaments to the Kurds. European allies are following suit; helmets and body armor are being provided directly by France, Britain, Germany and even the Czech Republic. Other European Union nations, including the Netherlands and Italy, have agreed to arm Kurdish security forces.
This decision comes out of necessity as an effort to stem the onslaught of Islamic State militants in Iraq. It is also a tacit recognition that Iraq, as the world has known it since 1932, may be finally finished. A single Iraq comprised of Kurds, Sunni’s and Shias appears to be both impractical and unsustainable.
The US and its allies should support the establishment of an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds have been one of the West’s most consistent and reliable allies in the region. Historically overlooked and oppressed as a minority group in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, the Kurds have a distinct ethnic identity with their own culture, traditions and language, and long-standing aspirations to self-determination.
The creation of an independent Kurdistan will facilitate peace and stability in the region. A Kurdistan freed from Iraq’s power politics could protect its own borders, form alliances with international partners and create a democratic market-based economy built on its significant oil and mineral resources.
To be sure, obstacles are significant. Turkey holds a historic objection to an independent Kurdistan. For the last 30 years, the Turks have been fighting an armed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), an independence movement in their own country.
The PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union and NATO. A ceasefire that has endured since 2013 and a bill passed by Turkey’s parliament aimed at kick-starting peace negotiations with the PKK make it less likely that Turkey would see the formation of an Independent Kurdistan as the catalyst for internal conflict.
An independent Kurdistan would benefit Turkey by creating a moderate buffer state between Turkey and the rising tide of Sunni extremism in an increasingly unstable Iraq. A peaceful political process in southern Turkey would establish conditions for unprecedented economic growth and stability in the region.
Kurdistan also is home to diverse populations of religious groups, most of whom are actively persecuted in Iraq. An independent Kurdistan could help guarantee the protections of ethno-religious minorities, including Yarsan, Suffis, Zoroastrians, Yazidis, Christians, and even the handful of remaining Kurdish Jews, all of whom have traditionally enjoyed protections and religious liberty under Kurdish rule.
The real challenge will be in managing the territorial expectations of a free and independent Kurdistan.
Critics argue that an independent Kurdistan would break up the nation of Iraq, and would lead to additional separatist agitation in Turkey’s Kurdish region. The truth is, the Kurds have had de-facto independence from Iraq for over a decade. Formalizing Kurdish independence would only help stabilize the political turmoil in Baghdad.
It would also affirm the reality that Iraq’s three competing ethnic groups — Sunni, Shia and Kurd — are ungovernable. By removing the Kurds from the political picture, Iraq’s complicated governance may become more manageable.
Iraq’s artificial boundaries, drawn at the close of World War I by far-removed European colonial powers, no longer make sense. Arming Kurdish forces by the US and Europe is the first step in recognizing this truth.
The historic, legitimate right of Kurdish self-determination deserves support from the community of nations in the founding of an independent national called Kurdistan.
Adam Tiffen is a co-founder of Tri-Star Collaborative, a firm specializing in sustainable development in emerging markets and post-conflict environments. He is a veteran of three tours of duty with the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter at @tiffendc.