Kurdish Peshmerga forces celebrate Newroz Day, a festival marking spring and the new year, in Kirkuk, Iraq, March 2017.
Ako Rasheed / REUTERS

On April 2, two of the main political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan—the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—issued a joint statement announcing their commitment to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence. The two parties are often at odds with one another, but it appears that with the battle for Mosul entering its bitter end, and after nearly three years of continuous war against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Iraqi Kurds believe that the time is right to cash in their hard-won political chips.

Kurdistan’s leaders know that independence will not come easy. In particular, Turkey and Iran are bound to try to block such efforts given their concerns about their own Kurdish populations’ aspirations. The United States, meanwhile, has historically shunned the idea of breaking apart the Iraqi state out of fear of setting a precedent for secessionism throughout the region. Even intra-Kurdish disputes over the timing and process of separation have limited the Kurds’ independence aspirations. As such, Kurdish officials have positioned the referendum as a declaration of intent, with true independence still some time away.

And this isn’t even the first time such a declaration has been made. But something is different this time around, and it gives Iraqi Kurds greater optimism that their path to independence may ultimately succeed. That difference is U.S. President Donald Trump.

On a recent trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, I spoke with numerous politicians, officials, and businessmen who believe that the Trump presidency has created new opportunities for Kurdish independence. The Kurdish public, moreover, has been generally optimistic about Trump since his election. Yet the aspects of the Trump presidency that most excite Iraqi Kurds are the same ones that have U.S. foreign policy experts most concerned.

A FOREIGN POLICY RESET?

First, Trump is sidelining the traditional U.S. foreign policy establishment. Since January, the White House has actively sought to reduce the influence of experienced foreign policy figures by devaluing career State Department officials and sidelining recognized Republican experts. The State Department is “already running on fumes” and has been without top officials for months. Its gutting is a frightful prospect for specialists on both sides of the aisle because the department and its staff have traditionally served as a bedrock of continuity in the United States’ engagement with the world. In short, the maintenance of an “establishment” has assured that institutional knowledge about states, regions, leaders, and relations—often collected, developed, and curated over decades—is not lost when a new administration takes office.

However, from a historical perspective, the diplomatic establishment has not been particularly kind to Kurds, at least until the Iraqi Kurdish uprising of 1991 and the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although Americans are now accustomed to seeing Kurdish and U.S. officials shake hands and meet openly, longtime Kurdish diplomats are quick to point out that this is a new phenomenon that comes after nearly 60 years of resistance and suffering. Although there have been notably sympathetic individuals, the State Department as an institution often proved a dead end for Kurdish diplomacy throughout the twentieth century, thanks to deeply ingrained policies supporting the territorial integrity of states and non-recognition of non-state actors. The result of these policies is that no matter how useful Iraq’s Kurds may have been to U.S. policy in the Middle East since the 1970s, and no matter how close relations have grown since the Gulf War, support for an independent Kurdistan has had an institutionally imposed glass ceiling.

Trump, however, has made it known that he does not feel bound by established U.S. policies and relations, such as when he suggested the U.S. was not committed to a “one China” policy in December 2016, only to change his position months later. Although this prospect may be worrisome for those who benefit from established norms, many Kurds are hopeful that Trump is opening the way for the recognition of new states. Furthermore, Trump’s selection of an outsider, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to head the weakened State Department has its own unique benefit. Tillerson may not be an experienced diplomat, but he is a friendly face to the Kurds, having overseen ExxonMobil’s expansion to Kurdistan in 2011. Tillerson’s experiences as an oil man have been met with a healthy mix of concern and praise in Washington, but they are generally viewed as an advantage by the oil-rich Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Second, national security experts may lament Trump’s eagerness to surround himself with retired generals and military personnel on the grounds that it can upend the civil–military divide, but Iraqi Kurds see this as a new pathway to increased favor. With General James Mattis serving as secretary of defense, Admiral Michael Rogers as director of the National Security Agency, General John Kelly as director of homeland security, Lieutenant-General H.R. McMaster as national security adviser, and West Point graduate Mike Pompeo as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, civilians might have taken a back seat to the military in shaping the U.S. security policy. But for Kurds, this is a good thing.

The Pentagon has been much warmer in its dealings with the Kurds than the State Department thanks to close military cooperation that goes back decades and is especially strong today. In post-2003 Iraq, the Pentagon and intelligence community have worked closely with the Kurds, including the ongoing push to defeat the Islamic State since the summer of 2014. Through these military experiences, U.S. personnel and Kurdish peshmerga have formed strong bonds of comradery and trust. As more military personnel who share positive views of Iraqi Kurds populate Trump’s inner circle, Kurds become more likely to gain favor in Washington. Mattis and McMaster, for example, both had formative experiences in the Iraqi theater. When Mattis met with Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani in March, Rudaw reported that Mattis reaffirmed U.S. support by noting that he “was familiar with the Kurdish cause and that Kurdistan and the U.S. had made sacrifices side by side.” Kurds hope that such respect will translate into political and economic cooperation beyond the military realm.

One can easily imagine Trump publicly offering improvised, unclear, or hyperbolic support for Kurdish independence, even if this cuts against established U.S. policy.

Finally, Kurds see Trump’s inexperience in Middle East politics and foreign policy in general as an advantage. A deficit of knowledge about the political, economic, and social challenges of Iraq and the region at large means Trump will have a steep learning curve. With a weakened foreign policy establishment and a president eager to learn, Iraqi Kurds now have a clean slate to sell their narrative and make their case for independence to the White House. Furthermore, Trump’s disregard for diplomatic protocol may produce useful gaffes. (Think of when the then-president elect took a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president, breaking a decades-long policy.) One can easily imagine Trump publicly offering improvised, unclear, or hyperbolic support for Kurdish independence, even if this cuts against established U.S. policy. Such statements, even if they carry little legal weight, can be useful ammunition for Kurdish politicians vis-à-vis Baghdad and internally within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Taken together, these factors may prove favorable for Iraqi Kurds’ independence aspirations. However, there is still a recognition that—at least for the moment—these are merely hopes. A new and malleable U.S. foreign policy would be a windfall for the Kurds, but Erbil recognizes that prospects can reverse themselves should opposing narratives gain the president’s ear. Trump’s policy malleability and volatility mean the very forces creating new opportunities may move Trump in the opposite direction under certain circumstances. As such, the road to Kurdish statehood is almost certainly going to be prolonged, complex, and precarious. For now, however, a window of hope for Iraqi Kurds remains open.

  • MORGAN KAPLAN is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. 
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