On Sept. 25, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has scheduled a “binding” referendum on independence — a clear message the Kurds will no longer tolerate the repeatedly violated promises of Baghdad.
Critical questions: 1) If the Kurds realize their centuries-old dream of independence, could they survive? and 2) Where should America come down on the question of Kurdish self-determination?
The U.S. State Department, Baghdad, and especially Turkey (fearing the aspirations of its Kurds) have voiced opposition to the referendum. Conversely, many have expressed support, including leaders from Israel, Britain, France, Australia, Saudi Arabia and as many as 40 others. Even the U.S. has influential Kurdish supporters in Congress.
In 2006, the Kurds undertook a hugely successful public relations campaign titled, “Kurdistan: The Other Iraq,” centered around a “Thank You America” TV spot that aired on FOX, CNN, BBC, CBS, etc.
The simple ad expressing rare appreciation for American support and sacrifice went viral, and many embraced these little-known people who suffered their own “holocaust” at the hands of Saddam.
But that was 10 years ago, and most Americans today are unenlightened concerning the Kurds. The Kurds desperately need a repeat performance. America will love the Kurds — if the Kurds give them a chance. The Kurds have done a brilliant job winning the admiration of the world in their fight against ISIS, but they have yet to fully capitalize on the respect for which they fought so hard.
The Kurds have fared reasonably well in the more politically sophisticated climate of Europe, but progress is woefully inadequate in America — an audience more attuned to the “Game of Thrones” than the “Game of Kurdistan.” If they hope to turn the tide for independence, they must win the public relations “war,” and thus avoid a potential shooting war with Turkey and/or Baghdad — a crisis that is not unthinkable, as both have invaded Kurdistan in the not-too-distant past.
Only America has the economic and political influence to act as the guarantor of Kurdish independence in this “tough neighborhood,” as it has with Israel since 1948.
It is in America’s national interest to secure the Kurds as a staunch and stable Middle East friend. The Kurds are committed to continuing the fight against ISIS — now a failed “State,” but nonetheless an insurgent force that will not disappear anytime soon. Without the Kurds, the outcome of the battle against ISIS would have ended far differently. Baghdad’s army handed Mosul over to ISIS in June of 2014. ISIS then marched to the very gates of Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil, only to be turned back by the Peshmerga — and this without the sophisticated American arms the Iraqi army enjoyed from the start. Without the Kurds going forward, we may well see a resurgent ISIS or worse.
No one, including the Kurds, wants a repeat of the failed 1945 Republic of Mahabad, when Kurds briefly declared independence in what is now Iran. It was a flame extinguished almost overnight by overwhelming opposing forces. However, today a sustainable independent Kurdistan is not as bleak a prospect as some make out. The Kurdish Peshmerga is not the handful of revolutionaries they were in 1945. They field over 100,000 seasoned troops who have proven their mettle against all the odds and will fight for freedom if necessary, as the then-weak America did in 1776.
The Kurds are suffering economically. However, it is a temporary condition exasperated by nearly 2 million refugees and IDPs now residing within their borders, for whom the Kurds have shown an amazing degree of care and hospitality. Now that the ISIS crisis is all but past, the economic boom that preceded it will resume, particularly when oil prices rebound, as they surely will.
Kurdistan possesses as much as 25 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves, and this alone could secure its future, but far more meets the astute economic eye. There is also a potential multibillion-dollar tourism industry, as Kurdistan boasts thousands of historical sites nestled within countless lakes, rivers and snow-capped mountains. National Geographic has twice named the KRI in the top 24 destinations in the world.
Kurdistan is also the spillway for all of the water of the region, making it a potential agricultural powerhouse capable of feeding the entire Middle East. There is a Kurdish proverb that aptly states, “When the Arabs run out of oil, they will walk barefoot in the sand to get a drink of water from the Kurds.”
There are unequaled opportunities for those daring enough to stand with the resilient and surprising Kurdish people. Political and economic fortunes are made in the midst of crisis, and both can be made — especially for America — in what could soon become an independent Kurdistan.
• Douglas Layton, Th.D., has lived or worked for over 25 years in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). He authored the first and only comprehensive Guide to the region; originated the public relations campaign, “Kurdistan: The Other Iraq”; was one of five experts who testified during the U.S. Senate hearings on Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds; and is co-founder of the KRI’s first inwardly focused tour company, Kurdistan Iraq Tours LLC.
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