The historical Kurdistan is currently split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. They are roughly 15 million Kurds living in Turkey, 6 million in Iran, 5.5 million in Iraq and 2 million in Syria.

The Iraqi Kurdistan is a parliamentary democracy with it's own parliament consisting of 111 seats and capital city of Erbil, population 850.000. It's official languages are Kurdish and Arabic.

The Peshmerga, whose name translates as "those who face death", are the Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. They are a military arm of  the KRG, the Kurdistan Regional Government.  Their birth dates back to the mid-20th century when Mustafa Barzani picked up arms to fight for Kurdistan independence.

Majority of Kurds adhere to the Synni brand of Islam but some belong to Shia denomination, Yazidism, Christianity and Judaism. There are almost 200.000 of Kurdish Jews living in Israel.

There are several political parties  in Iraqi Kurdistan but the two major parties who are dominating the internal politics are KDP (Kurdish Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). PUK broke out off KDP in 1975 to become a new party. KDP is dominated by the Barzani clan and has a strong presence  in the northern part of the Kurdish Autonomy while south is primarily controlled by PUK and the Talabani clan.    



Kurdish People Deserve a Better Fate

On September 25 of 2017, the autonomous Kurdistan region in Northern Iraq held a referendum on independence. Not surprisingly the turnout was huge and the voters overwhelmingly supported separation from the rest of Iraq and creation of the Kurdish nation state. Leading up to the referendum vote there was a tremendous pressure on the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, not to go through with it.

The Western powers were voicing a concern that the independence vote would create tensions within Iraq at the time when all efforts were devoted to defeating the Islamic State. At the same time the Shia dominated Iraqi government along with Iran and Turkey exhibited outright hostility towards the independence movement followed up with the threats of violence against the emerging Kurdish State.

Even the U.S. administration, a close ally of the Kurds, was openly critical of the referendum, concerned with potential divisions within Iraqi society and destabilization of the region. The other concern of the Americans was the fact that there are U.S. troops currently involved in the fight against ISIS and taking sides in this highly sensitive dispute would add to the risks they are already facing.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Iraq's Kurdish Regional President Masoud Barzani

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Iraq's Kurdish Regional President Masoud Barzani during a visit to Erbil.  DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr.

While the concerns of the Trump administration can be taken into the consideration, they also need to see the bigger picture of where the region is heading after the inevitable fall of the so called ISIS caliphate. If defeating the terrorist state is the only goal they are pursuing, then their Middle East policy is as short sided as it can be. If they are interested in maintaining any meaningful influence in the region, then having a reliable ally is absolutely imperative. Kurds currently are the only ones that fit that bill as proven time and again both in Iraq and Syria.

Conversely, the regional players who are hell-bent to crush a Kurdish drive for statehood are nothing more than power hungry dictatorships or theocracies mascarading as the forces of liberty and peace. They are either open or covert enemies of the United States. In 2011, then Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a well known Iranian stooge, pushed U.S. out of Iraq and embarked on destructive sectarian politics on the behalf of the Shia majority. He ended up alienating other ethnic and religious groups, especially the Sunnies. Ethnic cleansings and other atrocities by Shia militias followed, which eventually played a major role in the emergence of the Islamic State. Mr Maliki is currently serving as Iraqi vice president and will be challenging current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the upcoming elections.

On September the 17th, just few days before the scheduled referendum, Maliki had a meeting with with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Douglas Silliman. The two met in Baghdad to discuss the independence vote among other things. During the meeting, the Iraqi Vice President famously declared: "We will not allow the creation of the second Israel in Northern Iraq". During Maliki's time as prime minister, the Kurdish-Iraqi relationship reached an all time low when in 2014 an ex premier cut the Kurdish share of Iraqi budget over the oil exports dispute.

In response to Maliki's warning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly backed the Kurdish aspirations for the statehood: "While Israel rejects terror in any form, it supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own". Turns out Israel is the only country officially supporting Kurdish interdependence. Pictures of Israeli flags flowing next to Kurdish ones in the capital city of Irbil were all over the internet. That must have infuriated the Iraqi officials and their supporters even more.

There are historical ties between Israel and Kurds. In 1948 thousands of Kurdish Jews left for Israel as the Jewish state declared an independence. Many more have escaped to Israel during the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein. There are estimated 200.000 Kurdish Jews living in Israel today and although no formal relationship has been forged between Jerusalem and Irbil, some personal and business relationships no doubt are maintained. There are rumors of military aid and training Israel providing to Kurdish peshmega fighters, but Middle East is always full of the conspiracy theories.

The United Nations, US and EU tried to persuade the Kurdish leadership to cancel or postpone the referendum and begin negotiations with Baghdad with a goal of reaching a deal within three years. To those requests the Kurdistan region president, Masoud Barzani responded that "there It's never a good time for Iraqi Kurds to become independent". He later lamented that "our mistake is that we should have held the referendum earlier and not later".

He was correct in his assessment. In retrospect Kurds should have held the referendum when the Iraqi government position and it's military capabilities were much weaker and ISIS stronghold in the area was much tighter. By not doing it earlier the Kurds did a right thing morally as defeating ISIS was of paramount importance for the entire region. Unfortunately in the Middle East defeating one bad entity does not guaranty that you are home free.

On October the 26th, after much of bellicose rhetoric, the Iraqi government forces with the aid of thousands of Shia militiamen who in turn were supervised by Iran, easily overtook historic Kurdish city of Kirkuk. They later progressed to take over much coveted oil fields and border crossings with Turkey and Syria, which are the lifeline for Kurdish economy. Iraqi forces pulled down Kurdish flags and erected Iraqi government ones in their place, a clear act of dominance. Overall the Kurds lost almost 40% of territory, much of it held since the US invasion in 2003.

Peshmerga soldiers in Northern Iraq

                     Peshmerga soldiers in Northern Iraq. DOD Photo by Maj. Daniel Hill 

If you are president Barzani watching events unfold around you where the Kurds are repeatedly compared by Iraqi government to the most despised entity in the Middle East, namely Israel, it does not instill a lot of hope for a peaceful coexistence. But when the same government sends their army along with the Iranians and Shia militias to overrun the Kurdish lands, the last thing you would probably desire is to remain part of that country.

These actions by Iraqi government are reminiscent of times when crimes were committed against the Kurdish people by Sunni dominated regime of Saddam Hussein. Back in those days, the Shia population of Iraq was also discriminated against and has suffered mightily under Hussein's repressive dictatorship. One would have hoped that Iraqi Shia have learned from those experiences and showed more humility in their dealings with Kurdish minority. Unfortunately It does not seem to matter who is in control of the Iraqi government, Sunnies or Shia. The end result for the future of Kurdish people is negative either way.

The current Iraqi regime and their Iranian bosses will do everything in their power not to allow the Kurds to realize their dream of nationhood. Independent Kurdish State would have a great potential to become a democratic entity, never a good thing for neighbouring autocratic regimes. The last thing they would want is for their populations watch a prospering democracy next door.

City of Kirkuk and it's namesake province are very rich in oil reserves. It is both a blessing and the curse. The fact that such an economically important area had a Kurdish majority historically did not sit well with Arab rulers of Iraq. While the Kurds are predominantly Sunny Muslims, ethnically they are a distinct nationality. Saddam Hussein and his Arab predecessors repeatedly tried to change that equation. Just between 1991 and 2003 over half a million of Kurds, mainly from the provinces of Kirkuk and Sinjar, were forced to relocate to the north of Iraq while Arab nationals from other provinces were resettled in their place.

It was nothing short of with ethnic cleansing of Kurdish population, which by the way was not limited just to Iraq. The mass movements of the population has created a resentment by the Kurds and sense of entitlement by the newly arrived Arabs. That rivalry between the Kurds and Arabs is still in play to this day and will only going to get worse after the military action taken by the Baghdad government.

Another fierce opponent of Kurdish independence is Turkey and it's outspoken president, Resep Tayyip Erdogan. He has repeatedly threatened military action against the Iraqi Kurds and also had his army attacking Kurdish positions in Syria. The fact that YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia, has been a great US ally in our campaign against ISIS means nothing to the Turkish regime. Any Kurd supporting the independence is considered a terrorist. It is impossible to ignore a grand hypocrisy here. The Turks are very strong supporter of Hamas and the whole idea of the Palestinian independence but are absolutely dead set in their opposition to the creation of the Kurdish State anywhere in the Middle East.

Just like Iraq, Turkey also has a horrible track record when it comes to the treatment of the Kurdish minority. Massacres and relocations were pretty common occurrence in post Ottoman Empire Turkey. For many decades using words Kurd or Kurdistan was forbidden and up until 1991 it was illegal to use Kurdish language in public. To this day an expression of Kurdish heritage is closely monitored and the most mundane actions like singing a song or performing in theater in the Kurdish language can get one in serious trouble with Turkish authorities. It is still illegal to teach in schools using Kurdish language which is allowed only as a subject in some schools.

Many Kurds place the blame for their misfortunes on Sykes-Picot agreement, secretly signed between France and Britain on May 16, 1916. The agreement laid a foundation for partition of the major portion of the Middle East based on the national interest of those two powers. By the beginning of 1920's on the ruins of the defeated Ottoman Empire the new Middle East became a reality.

Several new countries were created while ignoring the distinct ethnic and religious differences of the native populations. The newly formed countries like Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon each represented a mosaic of many different cultures with a long history of mutual animosity. Obviously that fact played very little role in the decision making process of French and British governments.

There is a reason why the Islamic State tried to erase the borders between Syria and Iraq. There were trying to void the results of the Sykes-Picot agreement signed 100 years earlier. Each of the above mentioned countries is a powder keg for religious and ethnic conflicts many of which are currently being fought with no resolution in sight. In fact the longer these conflicts persist more complicated they get inviting more and more participants both from within and without.

Kurds are an ancient people with their own distinct culture and currently number between 25 to 30 million. Their roots to the Middle East can be traced thousands of years back, but despite their strong national inspirations for the last few hundred years they were unable to achieve an independence. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1920, instead of statehood the Kurds were dealt the worst hand possible. Kurdish lands were divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. To say that having lived under the dominating umbrella of each of these countries has been a nightmare for the Kurds would be a gross understatement.

Yet the Kurds themselves are not without a blame. When the major regional powers are ganged up against you and you are facing such overwhelming odds the unity of your people is a must. Unfortunately the corruption and tribal mentality is a fact of life in Kurdish society. It was the case back in 1920's when instead of speaking with one voice and demanding their right for the nationhood, the Kurdish leaders were engaged in self destructive infighting no doubt manipulated by the external powers.

Unfortunately these divisions still exist and may have played a role in a loss of Kirkuk. Iraqi Kurdistan has a pretty robust political structure that features several political parties. Two main ones are the governing Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDR) under the leadership of Masoud Barzani and the left leaning opposition party called the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), for the longest time led by Jalal Talabani a former president of Iraq. He has recently past away and was replaced by his son Bafel.

The conflicting reports as to who is responsible for the loss of Kirkuk paint a picture of utter division. Massoud Barzani was calling for the defence of the Kirkuk while the Bafel Talabani forces, who controlled most of the city, made a deal with oncoming government forces and withdrew from their positions. As a result Kirkuk has fallen within 24 hours and is currently controlled by Iraqi government forces and Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militiamen.

According to the sources close to the situation, the notorious Iranian general Qassim Suleimani met with leadership of PUK a day before Iraqi forces got an order to move on Kirkuk. PUK and Iranians are considered to be strategic allies, but it did not keep General Suleimani from delivering a stark warning to the Kurds. He demanded withdrawal or face the onslaught by Iraqi army and PMU Shia militias armed to the teeth with with superior equipment much of which was provided by U.S. and was meant to be used to fight Islamic State.

Accusations of treason and incompetence were flying back and forth between competing political parties, but in the meantime the historic city of Kirkuk was lost. With success in Kirkuk and little or no criticism from the West the Baghdad government got even more emboldened. With full cooperation from Iran and Turkey their goal now is to crush any aspirations for independence the Kurdish people may still possess. On November 6th, Iraq's Supreme Federal Court, who is responsible for settling disputes between the Baghdad central government and country's regions, ruled that Iraqi constitution does not allow for secession of any part of the country.

As the US administration watched from the sidelines the defeat of Kurdish aspirations the brutal reality of who is now the power player in Iraq did not take very long to show itself. During his October 22nd visit to Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that with Islamic State almost defeated it may be time for PMU Shia militias to return home. The reaction from Iraqi leadership was pretty swift. Prime Minister Abadi reprimanded Rex Tillerson through his media department by issuing the following statement: "No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters".

Secretary Tillerson Meets With Prime Minister of the Republic of Iraq Al-Abadi in Washington

   Secretary Tillerson Meets With Prime Minister of the Republic of Iraq Al-Abadi in Washington

The next day when they met in Baghdad Abadi started out by saying that PMU militias are "part of the Iraqi institutions" and "hope of country and region". He also rejected any suggestion that militias are an Iranian proxy taking orders from Teheran. Unfortunately the Iraqi Prime Minister's grand standing does not equal to truthfulness and he knows is it very well. There is no mystery here as Iran's dominance in Iraqi politics is a well known fact. Abadi could not buy soap or cooking oil without Teheran selling it to him.

The funny part of this episode is that on the same day when Mr Abadi was showing up top American diplomat in Baghdad for domestic consumption, in Teheran the Iranian president Rouhani in his speech said the following: "No decisive actions can be taken in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa and the Gulf region without Iran’s consent." His statement speaks for itself. Moreover, members of Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) have not been shy bragging about the "control of four Arab capitals".

For his part part US Secretary of State tried to be diplomatic by saying that: "We have friends in Baghdad, and we have friends in Erbil, and we encourage both parties to enter into discussion and dialogue." Hopefully Mr Tillerson and the rest of Trump administration realise that they have no friends in Baghdad. They will be asked to leave Iraq as soon as ISIS no longer represents a threat to the current Iraqi regime.

It's not very likely that Iran will tolerate any American military presence in Iraq and will do everything in their power to make them leave. Iranians fear that their own substantial Kurdish population will be tempted to follow in the footsteps of their Iraqi brothers. The other reason Iranians are pushing so hard against any independence move is because even a small Kurdish state carries a potential threat of establishing permanent American military bases in the region where Iranians are marching towards complete dominance.

Some leaders of Iraqi Shia militias, many of whom have blood of America's GI's on their hands from earlier days of Iraq war, are already demanding withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi soil. One of them, Qais al-Khazali of Asaib al-Haq militia was quite undiplomatic in his request: "Your armed forces have to prepare from this point immediately and without any delay to leave our homeland". There is very little doubt that these militias will turn on us when American Air force and other military assistance are no longer needed.

The Shia militias, majority of whom are subservient to Iranians and considered by many to be an extension of the Revolutionary Guard in Iraq, will be a guarantor that Abadi led government will not interfere with Iranian ambitions. It's the time proven formula that worked great for Iranians in Lebanon, where their proxy, Hezbollah, represents the state within the state because their own military force is better trained and equiped than the Lebanese army. The military strength translates into political one and often times acts against the best interests of the country. Case and point the active Hezbollah participation in the Syria war. No doubt Iran has the same role in mind for the Iraqi PMU militias.

America friendly independent Kurdistan could have become a major thorn in the Iranians back and therefore quick and decisive action was taken against the Kurds in order to kill any attempt for statehood right at the outset. Unlike the US, the Iranians have a well established idea regarding their goals in the region. American policy of defeating Islamic State and then figure out what to do next is a non policy. Placing sectarian Iraqi government dominated by the Iranians and friendly Kurds on the even scale is naive at best and very dangerous at worst.

Kurds of Iraq and Syria have been invaluable partners in the fight against ISIS. Much more so than our so called allies like Turkey and Iraqi regime. In June of 2014 the contingent of Islamic State militants run over an Iraqi army many times it's size in the battle for Mosul. Many Iraqi soldiers simply run away from the battlefield, leaving American supplied weapons behind, a gift to the Islamic State militants.

No good deed goes unpunished. It was the Kurds in the north who gave shelter to the fleeing Iraqi soldiers. It was the Kurds who gave protection to Yazidi minority targeted by ISIS for extermination and it was the Kurds who played a major role in defeating the Islamic State menace. They fought their hearts out for years while the rest of the world was sleeping at the wheel. Unfortunately the rest of the world, including the US, sold them out to the regional dictatorships for a temporary political convenience. Long suffering Kurdish people deserve a better fate.

Since the Trump administration came to power, the American air campaign against ISIS was unleashed and US provided more training and equipment to the reorganized Iraqi army. At the same time, we kept a blind eye to the emergence of Shia militias and their Iranian "advisers" as a formidable fighting force for a better good of defeating the Islamic State. In the process of defeating one enemy we may have empowered another while sacrificing our best allies in the region.

History is full of examples suggesting that appeasing your enemies at the expense of your friends is not a winning strategy. Your enemies will turn on you no matter what you do and your friends will look elsewhere for a more reliable partner. We already have a bad reputation in the Middle East based on our abysmal track record of abandoning our allies and reinforcing that image with Kurdish fiasco is not helpful.

An updated US policy for this troubled region is a must and the sooner the better as lately the ambitions of our enemies only grew bigger while the Kurdish drive for independence is not going away any time soon. For our own sake we need to start rewarding our friends, or pretty soon we will have only the enemies to contend with.