How strange it is that the American government continues to regard as a desideratum the survival of the state of Iraq. Why? Modern Iraq, it needs to be repeated, was concocted out of the three Ottoman vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. Kurds and Arabs and Assyrians were in the vilayet of Mosul, the Sunni elite ruled over a heterogeneous Baghdad of fellow Sunnis, Shi’a, Christians, and even Jews (a large and prosperous Jewish class made Baghdad the second Jewish city in Asia, after Jerusalem), and the vilayet of Basra was, and remains, almost entirely Shi’a. Iraq is a state of minorities, Sunni Arab and Shi’a Arab, and Kurds, who are mainly Sunni but treated by Sunni Arabs like the Shi’a, along with (ever-diminishing) Christians, Turcomans, and others. Were it the practice of Muslims to treat minorities well, then such a state could work without a despot to hold it together. But they don’t.
Look at what happened to the Jews of Iraq, and more recently to its Christians. The Jews of Baghdad, who once constituted one-third of the city’s population, lost their wealth and security. In 1941, the Farhud or pogrom of June 1-2 resulted in hundreds of Jewish casualties; the widespread anti-Jewish riots and attacks in 1948, when Israel was established, led by the 1950s to the end of Iraqi Jewry. The Christians had not quite the same dramatic fate, but in the 1930s, after the British left in 1932, a large-scale massacre of Assyrians in the north took place. William Saroyan wrote a book about that mass murder: 70,000 Assyrians. That is the country in which the Iraqi Kurds found themselves, as non-Arabs.
The old Sunni Arab elite were the chief beneficiaries of the British decade (1922-32) of rule, when a Sunni monarch was put on the throne. They continued to rule until the American invasion, despite constituting less than 20% of the population of Iraq. They did so through guile and force. The Ba’athist movement offered a secularist alternative to pure Islam that was “open to all” — Christians, such as Tariq Aziz, and Kurds, and Shi’a Arabs — but the ruling majority were Sunnis. Ba’athism camouflaged Sunni rule in Iraq, just as in neighboring Syria Ba’athist rule served to disguise rule by the military caste, the Alawites.
Which brings us to the Kurds, and their place within that history of modern Iraq. They exist, nearly 40 million of them, the largest stateless group in the world, divided among Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. In Iraq, the Arabs have a history of suppressing the Kurds; the poison-gas at Halabja was only the most notorious episode in the “Anfal” campaign conducted by Saddam Hussein’s willing Arab troops, in which 182,000 Kurds were killed.
The air cover that the Americans provided to the Kurds before 2003, so that Saddam Hussein could not attack them, allowed them to get a head-start on constructing an autonomous region. They have built a society that is friendly to the Americans — American soldiers would take their in-country rest at Lake Dokan, a resort in Kurdistan, beginning shortly after the 2003 invasion and temporary occupation, knowing they would be safe. Kurdistan is the place Americans are still safe.
Kurdistan has its own oil reserves, and doesn’t need money. Its people are eager to have more dealings with the West, with America, and even with Israel. Some Kurds talk of Kurdistan as “another Israel” — a non-Arab entity in an Arab sea. This has not gone unnoticed among those who want Israel to have friends in the region. In the past it was the odd men out — Kemalist Turkey, and the Shah’s Iran — that allied informally with Israel. Their peoples’ identities — Turk, Persian — worked against, not with, their Islamic identity. As a minority in four majority-Muslim countries, the Kurds have endured what minorities endure in Muslim lands, even when they are Muslim themselves. Most Kurds are Sunnis, but that did not protect them from Sunni Arab fury.
An independent Kurdistan would be a safe harbor in a turbulent sea, an outpost and ally of the West, the only one between Israel and India. It might show the Arabs how to construct a modern and decent state. An independent Kurdistan would be a natural ally of Israel.
Why has the preservation of Iraq remained a stated goal of the Americans? The Shi’a regime is not going to share with the Sunnis the oil wealth, and the political power, that naturally devolved to it when the regime fell in 2003. Some think the Shi’a desperately want to retake Anbar and Diyala. I would argue that in Ramadi and Tikrit and Mosul, the Shi’a want revenge on the Islamic State hyper-sunnis, and don’t care about keeping them in the same state of Iraq.
Nor would the Shia fight to keep Kurdistan. The Shi’a don’t need Kurdish oil; they have their own oil; the Kurds would fight; why bother?
Finally, pressure on Turkey from an independent Kurdistan is likely to force the Turkish government to treat the Kurds more fairly, lest they attempt to break off large parts of Anatolia to swell the size of Kurdistan. In Iran, the rulers will be as worried about their western border, as they are now about their eastern one.
It is not necessary to do anything to bring about an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds have done it. A visit in early May by the rulers of the Kurdistan Regional Government (see the report by Michael Knights here) to Washington was a success, though it was military aid, not independence, that was discussed. But when the move is made, the Kurds ought to be supported by the U.S. government; an independent Kurdistan would be the single most useful geopolitical result, and most moral result, too, of what otherwise has been the Iraq fiasco.
There may be an argument against an independent Kurdistan. But what is it?