In a just world, the Kurds would have a state of their own. Their culture is ancient. They speak a distinctive language. They have a homeland, Kurdistan, ruled for centuries by Arabs, Turks and Persians — foreigners and oppressors all.
After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the victorious British and French created new Arab nation-states and put in motion a process that would lead to the restoration of a Jewish nation-state. But the Kurds — they got nothing.
In 1992 following the Gulf War, the United States, along with Britain and France, set up a no-fly zone over the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. The goal was to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein, whose genocidal war against the Kurds included a chemical weapons attack in the Kurdish city of Halabja four years earlier.
When Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, the Kurds greeted them as liberators. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) began to diligently nation-build, establishing the institutions and infrastructure necessary for independent statehood.
I don’t mean to oversell: The KRG has not become a democracy. Corruption is reportedly rampant — this is still the Middle East. Kurdish leaders, divided among themselves, have made mistakes.
Most recently, they held a referendum on independence. The results were no surprise. More than 9 out of 10 Kurds want self-determination. The government in Baghdad won’t let them go without a fight. And the U.S., which is invested in a unitary Iraq, doesn’t want them to leave. Predictably, the referendum provoked the rulers of Turkey and Iran, who are adamant that their Kurdish subjects get no big ideas.
Still, Kurdish society is open and tolerant. Kurdish schools actually educate young people. Nowhere in the so-called Muslim world will you find a people more pro-American. The Kurdish military, the Peshmerga, has long been a reliable U.S. partner. In recent days, it has often — and bravely — taken the point against the Islamic State.
And now the Kurds are imperiled. Here’s what’s happened: On Oct. 13, President Trump announced his Iran strategy. He declined to recertify the nuclear arms deal concluded by his predecessor. Among the reasons: Iran’s compliance cannot be verified so long as international inspectors are barred from the regime’s military facilities.
The president also is unwilling to turn a blind eye to Iran’s continuing development of missiles designed to deliver nuclear warheads, the “sunset” clauses that legitimize the mullah’s nuclear weapons program over time, and the terrorism that those mullahs sponsor. Notably, he designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization.
The Iranian response has been more than merely rhetorical. On Oct. 16, Iraqi forces, over which Iran’s rulers now exercise considerable influence, and Shia militias, many of them Iranian-backed, drove Kurdish troops out of oil-rich Kirkuk. According to credible reports, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of foreign operations for the IRGC, was on hand to personally coordinate the operation.
Though Kirkuk is beyond the de facto borders of the KRG, Kurds have long viewed it as the Jerusalem of their homeland. It was a Kurdish-majority city until the Saddam regime determined to “Arabize” it, not least through population transfers.
In 2014, however, when the Islamic State was on the march, Iraqi government forces abandoned Kirkuk. The Peshmerga quickly filled the vacuum, defending the city and holding it ever since.
By orchestrating the taking of Kirkuk, Iran’s rulers are testing Mr. Trump. They are betting that, despite the tough talk, he won’t have the stomach to do what is necessary to frustrate their neo-imperialist ambitions.
In the end, they think he will attempt to appease and accommodate them as did President Obama. Mr. Trump reinforced that conviction when, in response to the fighting in Kirkuk, he said his administration was “not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing.”
Over the weekend, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Iranian Parliament’s general director for international affairs, tweeted that Iraqi government troops “will return Erbil to the united Iraq easier than Kirkuk, just within minutes.” Erbil is the capital of the KRG. On Tuesday, Shia militias launched an offensive against Kurdish troops near the Turkish frontier.
It’s essential that Mr. Trump make clear that further threats to the security and integrity of the Kurdish region will not be countenanced, that any advance on Erbil will be met with stiff sanctions and, if necessary, force. The U.S. should insist that all military operations cease immediately and that negotiations between Baghdad and Kurdish leaders commence under American auspices.
Anything less will be interpreted as acquiescence to the Islamic republic’s drive to impose its brand of jihadism and Islamism on its neighbors and, in due time, far beyond.
To make America great again requires demonstrating that America is the best friend and the worst enemy any nation can have. During the Obama years, the opposite seemed to be the case. If aligning with the U.S. comes to be viewed as a chump’s game no matter who is in the White House, the U.S. will end up with no friends. It will have a growing list of emboldened enemies instead.
In a just world, Iran’s theocrats would have appreciated the fact that President Obama reached out to them in a spirit of respect and reconciliation. In a just world, skilled diplomats would devise elegant power-sharing formulas that all sides would embrace in the interest of peace and stability. In a just world, the Kurds would have a right to self-determination.
But we don’t live in a just world. By now, that should be glaringly obvious.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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