Marking the one-year anniversary of the Kurdish referendum this week, the moral obligation to support Kurdish independence for more than 36 million Kurds hangs heavily.
While the will of the Kurdish people was clear in a 73% turnout in the vote last September, 93% voted for independence from Iraq. It seemed the world – including the US – ignored the referendum and then, worse, showed remarkable contempt by dismissing the desires of the largest stateless nation of peoples in the world, with a population less than those of Canada and Australia.
This blockade to independence can stand no more.
In his speech in New York for the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, US President Donald Trump saluted other nations in their collaboration to defeat ISIS. Yet he failed to single out Kurdistan’s Peshmerga for their unique heroism in accomplishing that goal. He also made no mention of Kurdistan’s drive for independence.
Days later, cajoled by a Kurdish journalist, Trump finally acknowledged the bravery of Kurdish soldiers, but withheld commitment to Kurdistan’s future.
For the Kurds, who have been victims of persecution for centuries, including genocide at the hands of Saddam Hussein and more recently at the hands of ISIS, their right to self-determination can only be realized through independent statehood.
By virtue of the right to self-determination that was embodied first in Article 1 of the charter of the United Nations, and now ratified and codified in many documents within the cannon of international law, the Kurds are legally entitled under international law to determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
The Kurds have every right to nationhood adhering to a destiny without fear of persecution. The failure to meet our moral obligations as Americans who have betrayed the Kurds is painful to behold.
In Kurdistan where I traveled earlier this year, President George W. Bush continues to be viewed as a humanitarian liberator. Kurds I met with identify strongly with the US Republican Party.
From their vantage point, the Kurds, at the sharp ends of ISIS, an increasingly predatory Iran and an imperial Turkey in the ascent, the US no-nonsense policy toward extremism and the on-the-ground support for the Kurdish Peshmerga war against ISIS has won Trump broad admiration.
Yet, the former US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, and the current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, endorse the entrenched view of one federal Iraq. Hanging onto this fantasy has been the foundation of US policy since the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Instead of acknowledging the manifest reality on the ground, US officials cling to the myth of a united Iraq.
This is simply not the case. Iraq has clearly divided since the fall of Saddam. Denying this reality only empowers an increasingly aggressive Iran that is bent not only on regional hegemony, but avariciously awaiting the collapse of Sunni superpowers in its neighborhood.
Iraq’s downfall has been its devastating sectarianism between Sunni and Shia, which magnified in the post-Saddam vacuum. The regional animus toward Kurds by the surrounding nation states of Turkey, Syria and Iran, places the Kurds in an untenable position even as they seek to hold on to their semi-autonomous status.
With the announcement of the referendum last year, it became clear how strongly Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria oppose the prospect of Kurdish nationhood. Within days, the Iraqi Armed Forces were deployed with American sanction on the Kurdish border.
Reportedly with American approval and American weapons, including Abrams tanks, the Kurdish Peshmerga took control of Kirkuk.
Then-governor Najmaldin Karim escaped because reportedly the US Special Forces embedded with the Iraqi Armed Forces outside Kirkuk forewarned him that the Popular Mobilization Forces (an Iraqi Shi’ite militia controlled by Iran) was headed to the governor’s residence to kill him. While American forces saved his life, little was done to prevent the retaking of Kirkuk by Iranian-commanded militia.
The city of Kirkuk is to Kurds as Jerusalem is to the Jews. Kirkuk is also home to some of the world’s largest oil reserves.
INSTEAD OF defending Kurdish claims to what are to be surely disputed territories – with a legacy of Arabization policies started by Saddam to forcibly relocate Arabs to Kirkuk and erase Kurdish demographic dominance there – the United States appears to ignore the same policies continued by present-day Federal Iraq.
The American view against the long-denied desire for Kurdish independence is to be condemned. Instead, recognition that the Kurds are rightful heirs to an independent Kurdistan, beginning in semi-autonomous Kurdistan within the former Federal Iraq, is imperative.
The US is at a unique moment in history: the Kurds must appeal to the three leaders on the global political stage who can midwife Kurdistan into independence and do so unilaterally. Namely, Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US National Security Chief Advisor John Bolton.
For Trump, this is a chance to strengthen ties with the world’s only strongly pro-Israel and 90% Sunni nation. An independent Kurdistan would be a rare win in the embattled Middle East, cementing America’s standing in the region at a time when Sunni superpowers are increasingly perturbed by a predatory Iran. The US would possibly secure a vital geopolitical foothold in a precarious region at a time when the United States may confront either a proxy war or an outright overt war with Iran – as Iran already fears.
For Netanyahu, an independent Kurdistan would realize a long-held Israeli commitment to the Kurds dating back to the 20th century when the Mossad trained the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the Kurds helped Iraqi Jews expelled from Iraq to reach the young Israeli state. Netanyahu would also be the first to note that it was indeed a Kurd, Saladdin Ayyubi, who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders more than 800 years ago and showed mercy to the Crusaders even in their defeat.
For Bolton, weakening Iran is an overarching goal. Dividing Iraq into a Sunni Iraq, a Shia Iraq and an independent Kurdistan is of course Iran’s nightmare. The rise of Iranian ballistic missile expansions into the south and western regions of Iraq is with deliberate intent to retaliate at US interests in the region, if America has Iran in its crosshairs. Thus, the repercussions for US interests are clear.
America can benefit with a strongly pro-US, pro-Israel and pro-democratic ally in an independent Kurdistan, as from there necessary military and peacekeeping operations could be launched.
Certainly, the path to Kurdish independence is littered with obstacles. But Americans must remember that so deep is the Kurd’s commitment to Americans who liberated them from Saddam, that they have erected monuments to American blood spilled in Iraq.
It is time for Americans to reciprocate by helping Kurds achieve their guaranteed independence in 1920 by the Treaty of Sèvres, so Kurdistan can finally claim its rightful place in the pantheon of nations nearly 100 years later.
As global leaders continue to gather in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, the world must not miss fully the opportunity to affirm that the Kurdish people have the right to self-determination. The US must stand with the Kurdish people and help them realize this long-denied human right.
Qanta A. Ahmed is a physician, author of In the Land of Invisible Women, Council Member of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Institute and Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. @MissDiagnosis
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