In a televised address on october 29, the president of the Iraqi Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, declared that he would step down from his post. It remains unclear whether Barzani, son of the legendary founder of the Kurdish national movement, Mustafa Barzani, would reemerge as leader in a different guise, but clearly his announcement was not part of a well-laid plan.
To the contrary, it was the latest unintended consequence of his September 25 referendum on Kurdish independence—a long-sought aspiration—staged over the strenuous objections of not only the federal government in Baghdad and neighbors Turkey and Iran, but also the United States and the European Union. On October 16, Iraqi forces and Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias retook the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil fields from the Kurds. It was a relatively bloodless affair, thanks to a deal between Abadi and a faction of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the KDP’s political rival, which had opposed the referendum and jumped on the chance to turn the tables on Barzani. Soon, these forces had retaken most of what the Iraqi constitution refers to as the disputed territories: a broad swath of land stretching from the Iranian to the Syrian border with Kirkuk at its center, which both Erbil and Baghdad claim. Kurdish peshmerga affiliated with the PUK and KDP either withdrew or fled.
Perhaps most shocking to the Kurds was Washington’s opposition to the referendum and response to the Kirkuk takeover. The KRG has received massive military support from Western nations in the fight against ISIS, raising its expectations that they would support the bid for independence. Yet the Trump administration stood by as Iraqi forces and Iran-backed militias advanced.
Why, the Kurds asked, would Washington oppose their inalienable right to self-determination, one that Americans themselves once exercised, after they proved themselves to be Washington’s steadfast allies in Iraq after 2003, especially in the fight against ISIS? And why had America led them to believe they were on the path to independence, only to chastise them when they expressed this deepest aspiration?
The kurds have a long history of misreading America’s intentions. A succession of U.S. presidents have reiterated U.S. opposition to changing the Middle East’s existing borders. At the same time, Washington has long needed the Kurds to remain firm allies in wider power struggles against the Soviet Union, Iran, Saddam Hussein, or ISIS. This built a certain ambiguity into the signals Kurdish leaders received, or thought they received. Moreover, after 2003, powerful voices in Washington, including John McCain and Joe Biden, backed the KRG in its relationship with Baghdad and hinted at a certain flexibility on Kurdish independence. And the Kurds, one of the largest non-state nations, wanted to believe.
The Kurds’ quest for independence is 100 years old. So is their sense of grievance. They feel as if they have grown up with a non-state nation’s defective gene on which injustice and betrayal are indelibly imprinted, and which is passed down through the generations without remedy. This is why they so despise the secret agreement struck in 1916 at the height of World War I between Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, which delineated the future spheres of influence of Britain and France: Not because they produced an actual treaty parceling up the post-Ottoman world, but because the borders they drew represented the very intent to divvy up the spoils over the heads of the former empire’s subjects. Their agreement was codified in the 1920 by the Treaty of Sèvres, which held out the possibility of a Kurdish state. But within three years, that half-promise was abandoned in the Treaty of Lausanne.
What if the colonial powers had allowed the Kurds to establish a state in the early 1920s? The ensuing hypothetical Kurdish frustrations would have remained high, just as Arab frustrations have been over the past century due to the carving up of the Arab world. This is because what France and Britain envisioned for an independent Kurdistan was an expanse encompassing much less than the region’s Kurdish-populated areas. A Kurdish nation would have been torn asunder and, just like the Arabs, have experienced a generations-long yearning for unification. Even if the Kurds were to gain statehood today, that sentiment would remain acute. So would their struggle to break free of these constraints. Instead, the Kurds, divided across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, for decades have been forced to fight for their rights as a minority group, in an effort to parlay this struggle into a bid for their own state.