Washington and Tehran don’t agree on much, but they’re unanimous about this: The Kurds can help save Iraq. In recent weeks, both Secretary of State John Kerry and senior Iranian diplomats have urged them to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the extreme Islamist group taking over cities and oil refineries in northern Iraq. With their disciplined, battle-hardened peshmerga militia, they’re a formidable force.
So far, here’s what they’ve done: almost nothing. For the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, ISIL is a terminal disease destroying the country. But to them, that’s actually a good thing, because a sundered Iraq means an independent Kurdistan.
The person the Kurds blame for the sectarian meltdown is not Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy commander of ISIL and newly minted Caliph, but Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister. The Kurds see Maliki as enemy No. 1, a sectarian brute who vitiated Iraq’s attempt at an inclusive democratic republic and alienated the country’s minorities. And they don’t think the project can be rehabilitated.
Just like ISIL, the Kurds are now looking past this ramshackle state cobbled together a century ago and hastily drawn on a map by a white British woman. Kurdistan’s prime minister has stated that he no longer believes Iraq will stay together. Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region, declared on CNN before his meeting with Kerry: “The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future.” From occupation to rebellion to autonomy, the Kurds are closer to independence than they’ve ever been.
Iraqi Kurdistan hates Baghdad for two reasons. The first is that Maliki has blocked the Kurds’ attempt to independently export oil — an act of “economic warfare,” according to Kurdistan’s de facto foreign minister. With precious energy resources beneath their feet, the Kurds rightly predict a secure economic future for their children, whose fathers and grandfathers were massacred by Saddam Hussein and betrayed by the West. The second reason the Kurds hate Baghdad is that they see Maliki and his Shiite sectarianism as an existential threat. They didn’t fight alongside American forces in 2003 to replace a Sunni autocrat with a Shiite one.
Despite being secular democrats, Kurdish leaders actually have a convergence of interests with ISIL. Both are Sunni, both have been marginalized by Baghdad. What is ironic about this all — and indicative of the sheer fragility of alliance politics in the Middle East — is that ISIL has relied on the old Ba'athist network to make rapid headway in Iraq. Of course, the Ba'ath Party was Saddam’s Party (and is Bashar Assad’s party), but now forms part of the Sunni opposition.
The Kurds have not fought ISIL for one simple reason: It is not in their interests. They’ve certainly clashed in localized conflicts, but when Iraqi forces fleeing ISIL abandoned the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, the peshmerga quickly seized it, and ISIL has largely left them alone. There are even reports about ISIL offering the peshmerga a truce.
I saw Iraqi Kurdistan first-hand last summer. Beyond the innumerable cranes and jutting skyscrapers, what I witnessed were a people deeply confident in their future prospects, despite the chaos around them. We have our oil, we have the peshmerga, the sayings went. Such self-assurance was on display last week when Kerry asked the Kurdish leadership to join him in Baghdad. They promptly answered No, inviting the U.S. secretary of state to their capital, Irbil, instead.
When I met with Kurdistan’s de facto foreign minister, Falah Mustafa, he stressed the Kurds’ pro-development, pro-democracy position. Asked about independence — that is, carving a new state bordering Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey — he emphasized that the Kurds were committed to a democratic, pluralist, federal Iraq. This was last summer, and all those modifiers he mentioned have since been extinguished. Remarkably, both Israel and Turkey have now come out in support of an independent Kurdistan.
Through the fall of Iraq, Kurdistan is thriving. “We are very well,” one friend recently wrote to me. And so they are. The old Kurdish saying that “We have no friends but the mountains” may soon require some altering, because an independent, oil-rich, democratic Kurdistan will find no shortage of suitors in a fraying Middle East. The Kurds are not about to jeopardize this precious status by bowing down to Washington and Tehran.