If America’s role in the Middle East this year demonstrated anything, it is that it is increasingly a secondary player. More than just the Obama administration’s inconsistent stance on intervention, the U.S. has been mostly ineffective in changing the tide of events when it has openly sought to do so.
Few countries in the Middle East have interests that are fundamentally aligned with the U.S., making America’s ability to influence events there patchy and inferior to regional players. There is a rare historic opportunity now to for America to be ahead of the curve on a major regional event involving an important ally: Kurdish independence.
Reliable friends are hard to find, and in the Middle East, they are also hard to buy. A decade after the second Gulf war, the Iraqi leadership is closer to the Mullahs in Iran than they are to Uncle Sam, despite considerable American expense and effort there. In Syria as well, Iran was the invisible hand that brought Assad back from the brink of disaster, all the while lobbying Russia to maintain its support for the regime and bringing about the diplomatic coup that was Obama's about-face on Syrian intervention. The Egyptian army, one of the largest single recipients of US aid for the last three decades, has repeatedly flouted United States pressure since Mubarak’s ouster for its own short term interests. In a region full of resource rich autocracies, there is no shortage of players who will outspend and out-influence America when their existence, and not just their interests, are at stake. The Saudis will make it rain petrodollars all day, and America simply cannot compete with notions of prestige and threat of force.
History shows that allies with shared values, but also shared rivalries, are the safest of bets for the West in the Middle East. Israel is the clearest example; modern Turkey, relative to its Arab neighbors, has also made an ideal patron for the United States due not only to its secular tradition, but also due to its own lack of natural allies in the region. This is also why Iran, and not Saudi Arabia, was the more important country in America’s “twin pillar” policy of the 1970s.
The Kurds scattered contiguously across Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, are a group whose interests make them a natural partner to the US in the Middle East. While they are Sunni Muslims, the Kurds identify overwhelmingly with their cultural and linguistic heritage, making them outliers with no natural regional allies. This explains why, despite repeated betrayals by the West over the last hundred or so years, the Kurds have consistently seen the Western powers as their best bet, sometimes to their detriment.
The Kurds have also succeeded in maintaining a relatively open and democratic society in the Middle East for longer than any Arab country, and one that has good relations with Israel. Unlike the now seemingly defunct democratic progress in Egypt, or the nascent democracy in the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan has been battle tested by a number of elections through war and chaos around it for over two decades.
Of course, Kurdistan is also home to immense natural resources that America continues to be dependent, such as oil and natural gas, with one of the world’s largest oil fields in Kirkuk. Once one of the poorest regions in Iraq, it is now the most affluent, governed by one of the Middle East’s few representative electoral systems. Once an exporter of refugees, it is now a safe haven for Syrians looking to escape anarchy across the border. Meanwhile, it has dealt with its own Al Qaeda problem effectively, cooperating with the U.S. along the way.
Up until very recently, the largest impediment to an independent Kurdish state was Turkey. After all, Syria’s Kurdish population was too small to matter, Iraq’s central government was too weak to bicker, and an independent Kurdistan would potentially weaken Iran’s position in the region (which was good). Given the rocky history with its own Kurdish population, the increasingly prominent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was viewed with great suspicion by successive Turkish governments.
In a reversal that would have been unimaginable a decade ago, however, the AKP government in Turkey has made great strides in fortifying a relationship with the KRG. This has resulted in mutual cooperation in a number of areas, including with respect to Turkey’s own militant Kurdish population. Now, Turkey is involved in more than half of all commerce through the Kurdistan region, political relations are good, and Kurdistan is one of Turkey’s most important regional investments. Turkey may have concluded that it has more to gain than to lose from a strategic alliance with an independent Kurdish state, and is not likely to veto such a move were it to be supported wholeheartedly by the United States.
Despite reassurances from Kurds of recent, many close to the KRG believe it is only a matter of time before the Kurds seek independence openly. With Syria no longer an impediment and Turkey potentially on board, a partially independent Kurdistan would resemble a more powerful, resource rich, and strategically important Azerbaijan (where most Azeris actually lie within the Iranian border). It would behoove the United States to not only refrain from blocking such an eventuality, but to support it.
A Kurdistan that encompasses Northern Iraq and a portion of Syria would make a powerful ally for the West. With no natural allies in the region, Kurdistan is a reliably stable partner. Its well-trained army would serve as a buffer as well as a base for America on the border of hostile territories like Syria, Iran and a future Iraq. Landlocked Kurdistan’s ongoing dependence on Turkey and the United States for support would further stabilize the relationship, with Kurdistan’s natural resources capable of making up a significant portion of US demand. Supporting a Kurdistan is increasingly a no-brainer, and the US would be well served to be ahead of the curve on it.
Ali Ezzatyar, a lawyer, is the Executive Director of the Berkeley Program on Entrepreneurship and Development in the Middle East at the University of California, Berkeley.
Image: Flickr/William John Gauthier. CC BY-SA 2.0.