Earlier this month the last ISIS stronghold has been overrun by coalition forces in the Middle East. While Kurds, Syrians, and Iraqis alike may rejoice in their victory over crazed fanatics, this is not the end of the bloodshed, the misery, and the depravity of the Middle East.
For there are many questions still lingering in the realm of the Middle East: There is the Kurdish question, that is, do Kurdish forces have the right to self-determination in constructing their own state? There is the Iraqi question, that is, how will the Sunni north react to the Shia government of Iraq? There is the Syrian question, that is, how and when will the conflict end? In the face of these questions, the penultimate one is: What is the future of the Middle East?
One of the principle victories of the coalition intervention of 2003, executed by then-President George Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair under the guise of American exceptionalism and liberation, was the establishment of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in the northern area of Iraq. Let’s not forget that during the latter years of the Iran-Iraq war, anywhere from fifty to more than a hundred thousand Kurds were brutally massacred by Saddam’s regime. The Al-Anfal campaign – symbolically named after the eight surahs of the Koran explaining the Muslim triumph over the pagans – was recognized by the international community as a genocide. Saddam’s Iraq has been formerly described, by the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, as a “concentration camp above ground and a mass grave beneath.”
Indeed, the echoes of the dead can still be heard in Kirkuk and Erbil, and it appears that the next primed conflict in the Middle East will be between Kurdish forces and whoever stands in the way of a sovereign Kurdish State. As it currently stands, the chess pieces are aligning themselves along the northern border of Iraq and Kurdistan. Kurdish forces, as of early October 2017, have retreated from Kirkuk and established a frontline on the outskirts of Erbil. There have also been confrontations between Iraqi and Kurdish forces along this front, with short engagements and exchanges.
The possibility of a conflict between the Kurdish forces under the leadership of Barzani – a veteran of the Al-Anfal campaign – and Iraqi forces is inevitable if Iraq does not recognize the sovereignty and legitimacy of Kurdistan. Which, hold your breath, it will not. This leaves the United States and her allies in a peculiar position. Up until the coalition intervention, the United States has been an ardent supporter of Kurdish forces in the North, launching Operation Comfort in the wake of the First Gulf War to ease the pains of the Kurds. Moreover, during the last few years they have participated in arming both groups against ISIS – outfitting the Iraqi PMU with state of the art Humvees and US weapons technology, while also outfitting the PKK, YPG, and Peshmerga with the same weapons technologies and tutelage of US combat specialists.
Whose side is the United States to take in this fight? Should it take the side of Iraq or Kurdistan?
On the one hand, it usurped the illegitimate rule of a psychopathic, genocidal, dictator, plunging Iraq into depravity and decay. (Which my detractors will suggest was the result of the intervention). On the other hand, the coalition intervention propped up the regime of Masoud Barzani and the Kurdish government in northern Iraq. The question here is not of alliances but of entangled foreign policy.
Enter Turkey. Turkey entangles the United States’ hands even deeper in the ever-developing spider web of Middle East politics. If Florida, Colorado, Iowa, and Wisconsin are swing states in a Presidential election – then Turkey is the swing State of the Middle East. Balancing precariously between a warm friendship with Putin and a bid for EU membership, Turkey stands as a polarizing figure in the Mid-East. In the first case, if the United States was to recognize the legitimacy of the Kurdish referendum, effectively endorsing and recognizing Masoud Barzani’s government, then Turkey would align itself with Putin and launch a bitter campaign against the Kurdish State. Iraq would become openly hostile to coalition support and the Shia government would most likely align with the terrorist regime of Iran.
In this instance, Kurdistan would be surrounded by Anatolia in the north, Mesopotamia in the south, and Persia in the east, effectively tightening the noose on the possibility of an independent Kurdistan. If the United States and her allies were to do the opposite, that is, delegitimize the Kurdish referendum and support a unified Iraqi state, – then they run the risk of turning back on their own principles of exceptionalism, and the Winthropian notion of the city upon the hill. The Kurds are ideologically closest to the United States, as they drape themselves in the traditions of liberalism and plurality. Yet if the United States were to turn her back on the Kurds, for whom it has fought so tenderly to grant autonomy, then can we claim it is the liberating force that it once was? (Indeed, we cannot, but a more substantive reply to this question can be made later)
The future of the Iraq, at least in terms of the Kurdish question, seems to be balancing precariously on the verge of civil war. In my mind, the struggle for Kurdish independence will be the next step in the continued unraveling of the Middle East.
Barbod Pournajar is a student at the University of Toronto. He is completing a specialist in political science and his interests include diplomatic history and foreign policy.