for Kurdistan


by John R. Bolton

Iraqi Kurdistan’s recent referendum on whether to declare
independence from Baghdad garnered only slight attention in the U.S. Even the
overwhelming vote (93 percent favored independence) and America’s long
involvement in the region did not make the story more prominent.

Nonetheless, we would be badly mistaken to underestimate its
importance for U.S. policy throughout the Middle East.

Protecting American interests in that tumultuous region has
never been easy. Not only does Iran’s nuclear-weapons threat loom ever larger,
but the struggle against terrorism, whether from Hezbollah, ISIS, al-Qaida or
any number of new splinter groups, seems unending.

Less visible but nonetheless significant forces are also at
work. Existing state structures across the Middle East are breaking down and
new ones are emerging, exacerbating the spreading anarchy caused by radical
Islamic terrorism. Non-ideological factors such as ethnicity and cultural
differences are enormously powerful and best understood as movements in the
region’s “tectonic plates,” stirring beneath the surface of the more apparent
threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

None of these tectonic plates has more immediate implications
for America’s Middle East policy than the Kurdish people’s long-standing
determination to have their own nation-state. Modern-era Kurdish aspirations
for statehood emerged during the Ottoman Empire’s post-World War I collapse, as
European powers redrew the region’s map. The Kurds were unsuccessful in
pressing their case, however, and their lands were split among Turkey, Iraq,
Iran and Syria.

Nonetheless Kurdish longing for a separate state never
dissipated, leading to considerable conflict, most visibly in Turkey. The West
largely was unsympathetic in recent years because separatists in Turkish
Kurdistan channeled their major efforts through the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’
Party. Obviously, during the Cold War, Washington and the West generally had no
interest in weakening Turkey and its critical geostrategic role as NATO’s
southeast anchor against Soviet adventurism.

Outside Turkey, however, especially in Iraq, Kurds played a much
more constructive role, helping the United States in both Persian Gulf wars.

Iraqi Kurdistan became de facto independent from Saddam
Hussein’s Iraq in 1991, protected by the U.S-led operation known as “Northern
Comfort,” which included massive humanitarian assistance and a no-fly zone over
northern Iraq. Saddam’s 2003 overthrow opened the prospect of reunifying the
country, but Iranian subversion, using Iraq’s Shia majority to turn the country
into its satellite, refueled Kurdish separatism.

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs were also unwilling to be ruled by a Baghdad
regime dominated by Shia adherents, who were little more than Iranian puppets.
The rise of ISIS in Iraq occurred in part from this hostility, just as in
Syria, ISIS capitalized on the anti-Assad feelings of Sunni Arabs, who felt
excluded and oppressed by the dominant Alawite elite in Damascus.

With the destruction of the ISIS caliphate in Syria, the
question of what comes next is unavoidably before us. The United States needs
to recognize that Iraq and Syria as we have known them have ceased to exist as
functioning states. They are broken and cannot be fixed.

This disintegration reflects the Middle East’s broader,
spreading anarchy, and it provides the context for Kurdish Iraq’s overwhelming
support for independence from Baghdad.

I have previously suggested that disaffected Sunni Arabs in Iraq
and Syria might combine to form their own secular (but religiously Sunni)
state, which the Gulf Arabs could help support financially. Indeed, while
substantial issues remain about allocating the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Kirkuk
between Kurds and Arabs, the Kurds themselves are largely Sunni, which suggests
considerable confluence of interest with their Arab fellow Sunnis. Helping a
new Kurdistan and a new Sunni state might overcome the current split among the
Arabian peninsula’s oil-producing monarchies and focus their attention on Iran,
the real threat to their security.

Unfortunately, but entirely predictably, our State Department
opposed even holding the referendum and firmly rejects Kurdish independence.
This policy needs to be reversed immediately, turning U.S. obstructionism into
leadership. Kurdish independence efforts did not create regional instability
but instead reflect the unstable reality.

Independence could well promote greater Middle Eastern security
and stability than the collapsing post-World War I order.

Recognizing that full Kurdish independence is far from easy,
these issues today are no longer abstract and visionary but all too concrete.
This is no time to be locked into outdated strategic thinking.

Pictured: Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud
Barzani speaks to the media at a press conference on September 24, 2017 in
Erbil, Iraq. President Barzani announced that the referendum will go ahead as
planned. The KRG held an independence referendum on September 25. (Photo by
Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

John R. Bolton,
former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is Chairman of Gatestone
Institute, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and author of
“Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and

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