Radical Islamist action rekindles possibility of Kurdish independence

Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, stand guard near Mosul Dam at the town of Chamibarakat outside Mosul, Iraq, on Aug. 17. Kurdish forces took over parts of the largest dam in Iraq less than two weeks after it was captured by the Islamic State extremist group, Kurdish security officials said, as U.S. and Iraqi planes aided their advance.

Kurdistan’s long-smoldering dream of a free and independent homeland might soon become a reality, thanks in part to a weakened Iraq brought on by the stunning success of a radical Islamic army known as ISIS.

For decades, the people of this semi-autonomous region bordering the wild and rugged Zagros Mountains have sought to create their own independent state, linking portions of northern Iraq, western Iran, southern Turkey and a sliver of eastern Syria.

 

MANY FACTORS have stood in the way, not the least of which has been fierce resistance by governments in Ankara and Baghdad. So desperate was Turkey’s opposition to an independent Kurdistan, it was even once illegal for the Kurdish language to be used or taught in Turkish classrooms.

But the recent onslaught of ISIS militants over large regions of Syria and northern Iraq has resurrected fresh conversations about Kurdish independence. Ironically, it stems from ISIS’s success against the Iraqi military and Baghdad’s growing reliance on Kurdish peshmerga forces in the fight to help stem the invasion.

One might say the whole thing started with President Obama’s pledge to withdraw American forces from Iraq. That process, which ended in late 2012, resulted in the violent eruption of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, a ragtag but highly trained army of jihadists and militants with an avowed goal of overthrowing established governments in the region and replacing them with a new caliphate.

When he was elected in 2008, one of Obama’s first promises was to end American military involvement in that war-torn nation. At the same time he made it clear that U.S. troops soon would be leaving Afghanistan.

He made good on his first promise.

 

EXCEPT FOR A handful of forces guarding the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and a band of advisors now assisting the Iraqi army, there are no more American fighting men and women in Iraq. Military action continues in Afghanistan, but there, too, action is being scaled back rapidly as U.S. soldiers are phased out of that country.

Obama’s hasty proclamation to yank American forces out of Iraq complicated the festering problems under now-deposed Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s embattled government in Baghdad. All the enemies of the Iraqi state had to do was bide their time, and wait for the last American brigade to leave before making their move.

The rest was fairly easy. Almost overnight ISIS-led militants launched a massive ground invasion of Iraq, sweeping over vast portions of the north, from the dusty plains of Syria down to the gates of Baghdad. Iraqi forces melted under the withering assault, but – thanks to American air support – the courageous peshmerga have temporarily slowed the ISIS advance along the mountainous border with Kurdistan.

How long the peshmerga can hold off their fanatical attackers is anybody’s guess. Without substantially increased military aid from the United States – air strikes, logistics and shared intelligence – the fate of Kurdistan hangs in the balance.

 

THIS CALAMITY probably could have been avoided had Obama not been so bent on completely ending the U.S. presence in Iraq. He should have listened to his military advisers, who quietly and publicly predicted the consequences of a premature withdrawal.

But he didn’t. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the Middle East, it’s often difficult to predict with certainty what will happen, even under the most measured circumstances. But it’s safe to say that had at least a small contingent of American soldiers been left behind – say, 10,000 – to continue to help shore up the new Iraqi government, none of this would be happening right now.

The softened regime in Baghdad suddenly was left helpless to deal with a brand of barbaric invader perhaps not seen in those parts since the time of the Assyrian King Sennacherib. The beheadings, mass executions, religious and sectarian strife and other turmoil has undone what the United States spent billions trying to fix.

The end of the Iraqi war left that nation divided between notoriously bitter religious and political factions. Ancient tribal
hatreds collided with modern aspirations to guarantee the bloodbath would continue without some form of American intervention and leadership.

Until recently, the safest and most progressive region of the country remained Kurdistan – often regarded as the “other Iraq.” Vast oil deposits and western investments fed Kurdistan’s great wealth – along with its smoldering desire for independence.

 

IRONICALLY, NOW that Iraq seems on the verge of collapse, that Kurdish dream of independence beats even stronger in the hearts of young men and women from Dohuk to Sulemani. Victory against the ISIS invaders would certainly intensify their demands for a new Baghdad-free Kurdish state that would include parts of western Iran, northern Iraq, southern Turkey and eastern Syria.

In the end, the crisis in Iraq, though not entirely President Obama’s fault, is where it is today because of his overly eager obsession to fulfill his campaign pledge to end American involvement there. Had he given them a little more time, perhaps a new generation of Iraqis would have emerged that could have better dealt with aggressors such as ISIS and other political, religious and economic concerns.

The fate of Baghdad and the rest of Iraq remains unknown. But, ironically, if the city of Irbil survives ISIS, it might someday thank the president of the United States for creating conditions that led to a free and independent Kurdistan.

 

(The writer, the author of several books, recently served on the faculty of the American University of Iraq in Sulaimania. He teaches history at Georgia Regents University.)

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