by Russ Read
The state of Iraq as we once knew it is in shambles. ISIS continues to occupy vast swaths of Iraq, sectarian conflicts are on the rise, and the Maliki government cowers in Baghdad while the barbarians batter the gates. In response, the U.S. has sent a few hundred military advisors in an attempt to bolster the Iraqi military’s morale, so far with little success. Elsewhere in the region, Israel and the Palestinians are in the midst of another conflict, Syria is still in a bloody civil war (with ISIS involved), and the Iranian nuclear talks have been extended with no real promise of a deal in the works. Simply put, the Middle East as a whole is extremely volatile.
That is, except for Kurdistan.
The Kurds of northern Iraq are sitting pretty. They have not only successfully defended themselves from the ISIS threat, but they have taken control of the key city of Kirkuk, as well as some crucial oil fields. According to Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Kurdistan has taken in over 220,000 refugees fleeing Syria, and over two million others fleeing ISIS. In addition, what is left of the small Chaldean Christian minority of Iraq has been given protection by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Recently, the Kurds even helped some monks expelled from Iraq by ISIS.
Ironically enough, it appears Kurdistan, which is technically not sovereign, is perhaps the most stable state in their neighborhood, apart from Israel, of course. Just as importantly, they are a regional leader and symbol of democracy and human rights in this volatile region.
If there ever was a time for the U.S. to recognize an officially independent Kurdistan, it is now.
Unfortunately, it appears that most world leaders are more concerned with trying to return to the status quo of a “united” Iraq as opposed to looking for new solutions to the problems of the ongoing civil war. But like it or not, Kurdistan has become a de facto independent state and has, for all intents and purposes, already separated itself from Iraq. Apart from the efforts made by the KRG and the Peshmerga (the Kurdish military) in response to the ISIS threat, the members of the Kurdish delegation to the Iraqi parliament have long been at odds with their Iraqi counterparts, as they are unwilling to subordinate their legitimate concerns to the desires of the corrupt Iraqi government. Even if ISIS was successfully suppressed, it is highly unlikely that the Kurds would retreat from Kirkuk and resume their role as an autonomous region of Iraq, nor should they be expected to.
The West, in particular, is missing out on establishing a major strategic ally in the Middle East by not exploring the idea of a fully independent Kurdistan. First and foremost, Kurdistan is a remarkably stable example of democracy in a region fraught with conflict. Second, the KRG supported the U.S. during the Iraqi invasion and has prevented any American deaths on Kurdish soil ever since. In fact, they, and the Kurdish population, are consistently pro-U.S. Third, economically speaking, the Kurds have extensive oil reserves and are eager to explore foreign investment in several markets. Fourth, in contrast to the rest of the Middle East — barring Israel — the Kurds put a special emphasis on encouraging women to participate in the political sphere. In fact, women actively serve side by side with their male counterparts in the Peshmerga, engaging in the same rigorous training as their male counterparts. Fifth, strategically speaking, Kurdistan lies in a crucial area between Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. A bastion of stability in this area of the world would undoubtedly prove useful to the West, and the world as a whole, in regard to international relations and future diplomatic efforts. Sixth, Kurdish independence has already been recognized by their regional neighbors, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Lastly, it should be noted that the Kurds have proven they are ready for independence. The KRG has acted as a more than responsible leader in an area on the brink of total chaos. They have gained the respect of their peers and have defended not only their own people, but also those of different races, nationalities, and religions.
Iraq needs a strong neighbor to help it rebuild after the ashes of the ISIS incursion have been cleared, and Kurdistan is poised to be just that. The U.S., Israel, and the West all need an ally that can serve as a viable example of successful Middle Eastern democracy. Put simply, a fully independent Kurdistan is good for the Kurds, good for the Middle East, and good for the world as a whole.
Russ Read is a Legislative Associate at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET)
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