The inconvenient Kurds
Except for the State of Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan, there isn’t one state in Western Asia that is viable inside its present borders at a 20-year horizon. All the powers with interests in the region want to kick the problem down the road, and that is why the whole world (excepting Israel) wants to abort an independence referendum to be held by Iraq’s eight million Kurds on Sept. 25. If Iraq’s Kurds try to convert the autonomous zone they have ruled for a quarter of a century into a fully independent state, the Iraqi state probably will collapse, Turkey likely will invade northern Iraq and Syria, and Iran will join Turkey in military operations against Kurdish-led forces in Iraq.
There is no precedent in diplomatic history for the whole world closing ranks against the aspirations of a small people, let alone one that has governed itself admirably amidst regional chaos for the past generation. On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to warn of “potentially destabilizing effects” of the independence vote. Turkey’s parliament Sept. 23 renewed a mandate for the Turkish army to invade Syria and Iraq, and Ankara’s defense minister warned that the vote could collapse a “structure built on sensitive and fragile balances.” The White House warned, Sept. 15 that “the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat [the Islamic State] and stabilize the liberated areas.”
Just what is the “sensitive and fragile balance” that the Kurds might up-end by substituting the word “independent” for “autonomous” in the description of their land in Northern Iraq?
Most of Turkey’s military-age men will come from Kurdish-speaking families by 2040 or so, because Turkey’s 20 million Kurds have twice as many children as ethnic Turks. Last year I reviewed Turkey’s 2015 census data, which show the trend towards Kurdish demographic preponderance accelerating (“Turkey’s Demographic Winter and Erdogan’s Duplicity”). Concentrated in Turkey’s southeast, the Turkish Kurds dominate a part of the country contiguous to the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. After half a century of dirty war by the Turkish army against the Kurdish minority, Turkey’s Southeast might break away to join an Iraq-centered Kurdish state.
Stitched together from three Ottoman provinces by the British Colonial office, Iraq maintained a brutal sort of stability under the minority rule of Sunni Arabs who controlled the army and used it murderously against the Shi’ite Arab majority as well as the Kurdish minority. George W. Bush insisted on majority rule, namely Shi’ite domination, which pushed the Sunnis into the embrace of al-Qaeda and later ISIS, and left the Kurds to fend for themselves.
Iran faces a demographic catastrophe over the next 20 years because the present generation of Iranians were born to families of seven children, but have only one or two children. As the present generation ages, Iran’s elderly depends will comprise 30% of the total, about the same as Europe, but with about a tenth the per capita GDP. Iran will be the first country to get old before it gets rich, and its economy will implode. Like Turkey, though, Iran has huge ethnic disparities in birth rates. In Tehran province, Iranian women have less than one child apiece on average, but in the restive province of Baluchistan on the Pakistani border, women have 3.7 children.
Syria’s Sunni majority suffered long under the heel of a deviant Shi’ite (Alawite) minority, and rebelled with Obama’s encouragement in 2011. With Russian and Iranian backing, the Assad government squared off against al-Qaeda and ISIS elements, until the Kurds created a third force that could defeat ISIS on the ground while holding off Assad’s Iranian mercenaries. After the Iraq and Afghanistan wars America lacked the stomach to put boots on the ground, and the Kurds became America’s designated proxy.
The United States brawled into the region in 2003 in order to create a stable and democratic Iraq, and instead opened Pandora’s Box. That left Russia (as well as China) in a quandary: the emergence of a Sunni jihad movement claiming the legitimacy of a new caliphate threatens the security of Russia, a seventh of whose citizens are Muslims, and overwhelmingly Sunni. Suppressing the Sunni jihad was a prime objective of Russia’s intervention in Syria, and its uneasy alliance with Shi’ite Iran.
Washington is left without an appetite for a fight, and without the gumption to declare its Mesopotamian and Afghan adventures a failure. America’s military leadership of the past 20 years rose through the ranks by supporting nation-building in Iraq. Although the US military has backed and armed the Kurds, it will not support any action that undermines Iraq’s territorial integrity.
Western Europe is already reeling from the million and a half Syrian and other migrants dumped on its borders with the connivance of the Turkish government, which allowed the migrant horde to pass its borders en route to the Balkans and thence to northern Europe. It wants stability at all costs, fearing that more fighting would set more refugees in motion.
China wants everyone to shut up and join its “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure project, which envisions Iran as a key node and Turkey as a western terminus. The ruins of Middle Eastern states might be absorbed eventually into a Chinese economic empire stretching across Eurasia, what I previously dubbed a “Pax Sinica.”
That leaves the Kurds to fend for themselves. That is a pity, and not just for the Kurds, who have shown themselves capable of governing themselves and fighting effectively to suppress the likes of the Islamic State. If Washington were sufficiently guileful, it could use the Kurdish crisis to its advantage. Turkey has behaved execrably during the past several years, playing a double game with the Islamic State, violating its obligations to NATO by purchasing Russia’s air defense system, and above all by using the transit of refugees as a bludgeon against the West.
Washington’s best course of action would be to threaten Turkey with support for Kurdish independence — including the artillery, anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft systems required to repel a Turkish invasion. Ankara would recoil in horror, but that would be a salutary exercise for the rogue Turkish capital. At the same time, it should counsel the Kurds to be patient, to bide their time, to trust to an American-led international commission on the future of Kurdish nationality, and to enjoy American largesse in a number of areas, including economic development and armaments. There are all sorts of ways for sophisticated weapons to get into Kurdish hands with plausible deniability. Without giving away the whole game, that should indicate how Washington might exploit the crisis.
Iran reportedly has put several army brigades into its own Kurdish areas in advance of the referendum. Iran’s Kurds would welcome American support, and I would advise Washington to engage the services of people like Michael Ledeen, the leading proponent of undermining the Tehran theocracy, to deal with the details — again, with plausible deniability.
Russia wouldn’t like this, to be sure, but Washington has few reasons to please Moscow at the moment. China wouldn’t like it; any sort of instability is bad for business. In diplomacy, though, everything is negotiable. What will Russia and China concede for America’s help in persuading the Kurds to be patient? In the medium term, Kurdish ascendancy is likely whether the great powers like it or not. They are tough, competent and impassioned about their own nationality, while the Turks and Iranians have become enervated and hollow, and the Arabs tribalistic and corrupt. America should cultivate the winners, and thereby gain the influence to moderate the course of Kurdish national aspirations.
But all this is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have ham-and-eggs, if we had some eggs. After two decades of promoting diplomats and military officers for doing the wrong sort of thing, Washington simply lacks people with the imagination to turn a good crisis to its advantage.