Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Kurds of Northern Iraq will hold a referendum on independence in September, and the question before Congress is whether we should support their dream of self-determination or vote to make it a dream deferred.

When ISIS attacked Iraq, there was one group that stood up to ISIS from the beginning, and they didn’t do it because it was easy, nor because they thought they would gain financial support; they did it because they believe in the cause of human freedom. The Kurds are a noble people. In the councils of eternity, their efforts will not be forgotten.

Let’s address the counter-argument first, namely, that the more we support the Kurds in Nineveh and along the disputed areas, the more that we put ourselves against the Sunni Arab community that might otherwise join us in fighting ISIS. This argument contends that only a unified nation centered in Baghdad can broker an agreement between the Sunni Arabs in the west, the minorities in the Nineveh Plain and the Kurds in the north.

The premise of this argument is that Iraq is a pluralistic nation state in a liberal sense. It is not. This ancient territory has many tribal elements in many different respects, and Washington policymakers have erred by clinging to the idea that we must fully democratize a place with deep but divergent historical and cultural roots. In fact, the people in Nineveh and Anbar Provinces that supported al Qaeda in 2003 and ISIS today are opposed to democracy in principle. They will not change their minds regardless of whether the Kurds are independent.

On the other hand, there are compelling reasons to believe that allowing the Kurds of Northern Iraq to have their own nation will hasten military victory over ISIS and bring stability to the region.

First, it will end the absurd bureaucratic barriers to bringing military aid directly to the Kurdish forces, who are the most proven effective units in the region. Stability can only start after eradicating the forces that threaten the safety of the citizens of Northern Iraq.

The battle of Mosul in Northern Iraq is over, but the war is not. Months of close combat remain for the Iraqi Security Forces and for Western Coalition advisers close to them. We can thank the Kurdish military, that is the Peshmerga, for pushing ISIS back on its eastern flank at the beginning of the drive to reclaim Mosul last year. The Kurdish military did this without access to the heavy arms and medical supplies that were channeled by legal necessity to Baghdad and never made it to Erbil. That is why in the last Congress we pushed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to directly arm the Kurdish military. An independent Kurdish nation will have a stronger military and will give greater support to the anti-ISIS coalition.

Second, an independent Kurdistan can serve as a valuable buffer zone between Iran on the east and an increasingly unstable Turkey on the north. It is well known that the ayatollahs in Iran regard the United States as an enemy, and their goal is to forge a sphere of control extending through Iraq all the way to the Mediterranean coast. Turkey, once a reliable ally to the West, now has dictatorship government leaning toward Islamism. The reliably secular government in the Northern Iraq is a proven ally the United States needs.

Third, there is reason to believe that minorities will have better protection under a Kurdish government than a Baghdad-based one. One of the largest minorities suffering genocide under ISIS are the Kurdish-speaking Yezidi people, 500,000 in number. Virtually all of the 300,000 remaining Assyrian Christians found refuge in Kurdistan during the last three years. Many are there now and cannot return to their homeland due to the lack of security from the Baghdad government.

We have to support our friends who were there for freedom when the times were most difficult. The Kurds have demonstrated their commitment. I encourage the Trump administration to hold them in partnership in this fight against the scourge of ISIS and jihadist terrorism across the world.

Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, serves on the House Armed Services and Judiciary Committees.

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