A combination of unclear policies by the US administration in Iraq, a dysfunctional Iraqi government, and the brutality of the Iranian regime have put the Iraqi Kurds in jeopardy, forced into making difficult choices ahead.
It is no secret that over the past three years the Kurds have suffered barbarous attacks, whether by terror groups like ISIS and Turkish-backed Jihadists in Syria, or by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime in Turkey. In at least two of the recent major attacks and ethnic cleansings against the Kurds, the current American administration either gave its blessing or turned a blind eye.
In 2017, the Kurds of Iraq held a non-binding independence referendum in an attempt to pressure the Iraqi government in Baghdad to fulfill its legal duty under Article 140 of the country’s constitution, providing the federal budget to the Kurds, and perhaps even facilitate the declaration an independent Kurdistan: a goal that every Kurd hopes for and has been fighting to achieve for nearly a century. Yet in response to this referendum, the Iraqi government launched a brutal war on the Kurds, a conflict engineered by the Iranian regime that involved the unleashing of Iranian-backed militias, some of whom rivaled ISIS in brutality and human rights violations. This conflict, initiated in October 2017, resulted in the burning of Kurdish homes and the displacement of thousands by militants and Iraqi soldiers brandishing U.S.-made weapons. It was clear the U.S. administration chose to support the Iraqi government and abandon its Kurdish allies. The U.S. position of “not taking sides” in this conflict was a de facto condoning of Baghdad’s actions to crush the Kurds.
It wasn’t till later that the U.S. administration realized that losing strategic territory, like Kirkuk province and parts of the Syrian-Iraqi border, to Iranian-backed militias was bad for the national security of both the U.S. and its allies. Thus after some 50 percent of the territory in the Kurdistan region was occupied by these militias, the U.S. administration finally stopped the advance by putting pressure on then Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Meanwhile, in Syria the U.S. partnered with the Kurds to defeat ISIS, the most brutal terrorist organization in the region. The Syrian Kurds operated as America’s de facto ground troops, while the U.S. provided air support, arms supplies, and equipment. The Kurds successfully defended their lands and defeated the self-proclaimed “Islamic Caliphate.” At the end of the conflict some 10,000 Kurdish soldiers were killed and 22,000 wounded. In addition, the Kurds of this region successfully built a democratic governing system that threatened both the authoritarian Assad regime and the theocratic governing system of jihadist thought.
However, even after all of this, in October 2019 U.S. President Donald Trump allowed the Turkish government to launch a wide-scale ethnic cleansing campaign against the Syrian Kurds. Prior to this the Syrian Kurds viewed the U.S. as reliable partners and had put their faith in their support and protection. The Kurds believed that the U.S. was a loyal, predictable partner that respected human rights and democracy, unlike Russia when they allowed Turkey to invade and attack the Kurds in the Afrin region of Syria in 2018. This aforementioned attack on Afrin resulted in the occupation of a large swath of Kurdish land as well as the displacement of hundreds of thousands and the death of hundreds of Kurdish forces and civilians.
The 2019 Turkish invasion halted its advance, similar to what happened with the occupation of Kirkuk, as President Trump reversed his withdrawal decision, after facing pressure from the American public over humanitarian concerns and U.S. lawmakers raised fears regarding a loss of access to oil. Yet, just like in Iraq, significant damage had already been done to the Kurdish people at this point.
In both these events, the U.S. lost leverage in region and control of strategic areas to Russia, while Iranian-backed militias, Turkish-backed jihadists, and ISIS terrorists filled the gap to take over previously Kurdish-controlled territory and historic Kurdish lands. The result was also that ISIS became more powerful while the Kurds became weaker.
The Role of Iran and Its Proxies in Iraq
After toppling the dictatorial Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, the United States tried many different times to help build a democratic Iraq, costing America thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. Many factors contributed to these failures: the corruption of Iraq’s political parties and faulty and ill-informed U.S. policies, to name a few. But through it all the Kurds were the one stable U.S. ally in the country, having been so even before 2003.
In contrast, the central and constant antagonist to U.S. efforts in Iraq during this time has been Iran. Through its proxy militias, Iran has been fighting a war against the U.S. in Iraq since 2003. This recently culminated in the killing of Iranian General Qasim Soleimani, who had been orchestrating this proxy war in Iraq for years, by a U.S. airstrike. The killing of Soleimani resulted in Iran going “all-in” in its war against the U.S. in Iraq, with its proxies able to infiltrate and hide within Iraqi security forces — forces who are armed and trained by the U.S. These militias and Iranian proxies exercise a tremendous influence over Iraqi politicas as well. For example, since 2003 anyone hoping to have a chance to be Iraqi Prime Minister must receive the backing of Iranian proxies, which in essence means they must be approved by the Iranian government.
Now under direct fire from these Iranian-backed militias, the U.S. has had to redeploy its forces and withdraw from several bases in Iraq, leaving only two places where U.S. military are consolidated: Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital of Erbil and in Anbar Province near the Syrian-Iraqi border. The U.S. plans to set up Patriot Air Missile systems at these two locations in order to foil rocket attacks by the Iranian military or its Iraqi proxy militias. The U.S. chose Erbil because the local population is very pro-American and poses little to no security threat — for, many of the Kurds are happy to host American forces for many reasons, including for their own protection from the Iranian, Turkish, and even Iraqi governments. The choice of the Syrian border in Anbar as the other location is also significant because it will serve as a watch guard against the Iranian government’s planned “land bridge” from Tehran to Israel.
With a U.S. Withdrawal in Iraq, the Kurds Must Choose the Lesser Evil
Like Syrian Kurds, the Iraqi Kurds have to choose who will be the lesser evil for the Kurdish region. The Kurds fear that President Trump will withdraw from Iraq which will put them in an unenviable position where they will be the first target of the Iranian-backed militias and Iran in retaliation for their long-standing help to America’s campaign against Iran in the region.
Despite being a part of the government of Iraq, the Kurds have no doubt that a strong uncheckered Iraqi central government will result in only more military and economic attacks against the Kurdistan region. It’s clear where Baghdad stands regarding the Kurdistan Region and Kurdish rights, based on decades of empty promises and violent attacks. Even before the independence referendum, the Iraqi government did not hesitate to cut the budget of the Kurdistan region as early as 2014. As long as the Iraqi constitution is not truly followed, with its key articles not implemented in full (e.g., Article 140), the Kurds will continue to face an existential threat from the central government in Baghdad. The distrust between Erbil and Baghdad has grown even more since 2017 as Baghdad has implemented martial law in the disputed territories.
The Iraqi Kurds could look to NATO member Turkey as a new regional ally. However, this proposition holds little promise at all. Since the birth of the Turkish state in 1923, the government of Turkey has orchestrated brutal, ethnic-cleansing-minded attacks on the Kurds throughout the region. For decades the Turkish government even denied the existence of the Kurds as a distinct ethnic group and people, often referring to them as “mountain Turks.” Persecution of the Kurds remains a systematic feature of Turkish government and society, not only in the ruling Erdogan regime but also among many of the principal opposition parties as well. Turkey’s President Erdogan has continued the legacy of fighting any Kurdish entity anywhere. He once said “I am opposed to Kurdish autonomy, even if it is in Argentina.” Despite its immense economic relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, the Turkish government holds the same position towards the Kurds as the governments of Iran and Iraq. In fact, Turkey has occupied half of the Kurdish region of Syria since 2016, and remains about 30 km deep into Iraqi Kurdistan, with proxies as deep as Selahaddin Province. Turkey is not only an unreliable power but a greater threat to the Kurds than both Iraq and Iran. Unless it changes course and ideology, Turkey is not an option for a reliable friend to the Kurds of Iraq or anywhere else.
Iran and the Kurds share a long history, but unfortunately this also includes a history of Iran’s violent aversions to Kurdish aspirations. For example, before the rise of the current Islamic Republic in Iran, the Pahlavi dynasty crushed the first Kurdish independent state, which arose in Mahabad. The current Iranian regime has been the most ruthless to the Kurds. The Iranian government kills, jails and oppresses Iranian Kurds on a daily basis. However, at the same time it is important to mention that the Iraqi Kurds have had a complicated relationship with the Iranian regime since its inception in 1979. Much of this stems from a common enemy the Iraqi Kurds and the Iranian government shared: Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime. During the Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), the Kurds of Iraq assisted Iran and fought against the Hussein regime. Furthermore, Iran documented the atrocities against the Kurds by the Hussein regime, including the chemical weapons attack and genocide at Halabja in 1988. In 2003 the Iranian regime was accepting of an autonomous Kurdish entity in Iraq as long as the Iraqi Kurds did not aid the Iranian Kurds in their quest for independence. An autonomous Kurdish entity in Iraq also serves Iranian interests in that it prevents a strong, unified Iraq that could eventually become a threat to Iranian regional hegemony. In addition, Iran has a history of supporting non-state actors abroad, unlike other neighboring powers like Turkey. Iran has supported the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, and have understandings with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. In the Arab world, Iran supports the Houthi Movement in Yemen, and Hezbollah in Lebanon and almost all the Shiittee militias in Iraq. In fact, utilization of non-state actors is how Iran currently manages influence in Iraq itself.
So, although a difficult and undesirable choice, the lesser of evils among the Iraqi Kurds options of neighboring authoritarian and bigoted beasts, is mostly likely Iran. Even with the Iranian regime facing significant pressure from domestic unrest, even with eventual fall perhaps being in the near future, any subsequent Iranian government would still likely follow the same path in its view of and actions towards the Iraqi Kurds, given Iran’s historic rivalry with both Turkey and Iraq. At the end of the day, the Iraqi Kurds do not need to be a full-on Iranian proxy; rather, the Kurds of Iraq only need have a basic understanding with Iran that they will not oppose the Iranian hegemon’s regional aspirations — this would include promising no future partnerships with the U.S. in any anti-Iranian initiatives. This might be enough to ensure the safety of Iraq’s Kurds after a likely U.S. withdrawal from the region.
But any potential, long-term Iranian alliance with the Iraqi Kurds would not be without its issues. In other words, it would not be a free ride. Even under such an arrangement, the Iranian regime would still oppose any type of independent Kurdish state. At the same time, such an alliance would entail the Iranian regime keeping Baghdad in check against the Iraqi Kurds.
Another negative aspect of this alliance would be the fate of Kurdish political parties and entities in Iran itself. Many of these groups have received sanctuary within Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991; in addition, some of these groups have launched attacks against the Iranian regime from KRG territory. Such freedom of movement and operation would likely cease under a KRG-Iran alliance, with increased Iranian meddling in the Kurdistan region resulting in further oppression and violence against these Iranian Kurdish parties.
Is There A More Ideal Scenario?
Currently, the U.S. military, even with its small numbers, and the U.S. diplomatic presence in Iraq continue to serve as important factors for relationship-building and peace-building in Iraq between Baghdad and the KRG. Furthermore, the U.S. presence helps ensure security and stability for the Iraqi Kurds as well as for Iraq overall regarding destabilizing neighboring powers. If such a status quo can be sustained perhaps it may result in the U.S. facilitating a future where the Iraqi government implements the articles of its constitution in full in return for a pledge from the Kurds of remaining a part of a federal Iraq.
Such a scenario may be wishful thinking but it is not impossible: under this arrangement all sides would receive substantial economic and security gains. Baghdad would also see significant leverage over Iran and Turkey regarding foreign policy and regional security. Furthermore, a strong Erbil-Baghdad alliance would result in even more extensive support from Western countries at all levels.
One would hope that President Trump would not repeat the same mistakes of Syria by abandoning America’s Kurdish allies — an action that would not only create more regional chaos but also result in the U.S. losing key allies to bitter enemies in a region that is more than difficult to make new, reliable friends in.