On October 16, the world woke to footage of the Iraqi army barreling toward Kirkuk, several hundred miles north of Baghdad. Their mission was to reclaim the city, but not from jihadists; rather, they planned to win it back from the Kurds. Three years ago, as the Islamic State (ISIS) tore into Iraq, the country’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) fought back against the fundamentalists and captured Kirkuk for itself. At the time, Baghdad reluctantly acquiesced. But by October 2017, Iraq’s central government was becoming anxious. Buoyed by Kirkuk’s oil revenues, the KRG had held a historic independence referendum in September. Washington quickly urged Baghdad not to move forward with any offensive against the Kurds. But the Iraqi army pressed toward Kirkuk anyway, relying on Iran-backed Shiite militias while also courting Turkish support.
In this saga of power dynamics and kaleidoscopically shifting rivalries, the United States is a key player. But its incomplete understanding of the regional dynamics harms both its own and its allies’ interests. Indeed, Washington’s understanding of the Kurds, in particular, is limited in that it is defined by a focus on the war against ISIS, as well as a reluctance to give up on Arab Iraq and its massive oil reserves. The United States has consistently failed to comprehend the fact that Kurdish independence is a direct threat to the territorial and political integrity of all the KRG’s neighbors, be they friend or foe of America, and that any U.S. policy toward the Kurds must therefore contemplate the wide-ranging implications of Kurdish autonomy rather than simply viewing the group as an instrument in the fight against ISIS.
BEST FRIENDS, NOT FOREVER
Since the rise of ISIS, the Kurds who have helped to repel the jihadist scourge have become an American darling of sorts. Periodicals esteem Kurdish sovereignty, running articles such as “A Dream of Secular Utopia in ISIS’ Backyard.” Magazines fetishize Kurdish women—even children—for taking up arms against Islamic fundamentalism. Even ordinary fight and die alongside Kurdish militias. Kurdish zeal and efficacy in the fight against ISIS, coupled with their underdog status as a stateless ethnicity, has led to Western perceptions that they deserve support.
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