When the U.S. military pulled out of Iraq in late 2011, Americans and Iraqi citizens alike celebrated the end of a long, bloody war. But Iraq’s future was left hanging in the balance. And with time and virulently sectarian leadership from the Iraqi Prime Minister, an offshoot of Al-Qaida found strength. Now, under leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds dominion from central Iraq to northern Syria.
So far, the Iraqi army, trained and funded by the United States, has fallen apart in face of these fanatics. However, in northern Iraq, the Kurdish people have made progress combating ISIL. When the Iraqi Army fled Kirkuk, Kurdish Peshmerga forces held the city and expanded the territory under their control. Thus, while much of Iraq is caught in a Sunni vs. Shiite power struggle, the Kurds are confidently pushing for their independence.
Within the past few days, Kurdish forces have taken control of two key oil producing facilities near Kirkuk. This move is likely to worsen the tense relationship between the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad. Oil, after all, is the lifeblood of the Iraqi nation. Still, the KRG claims to have discovered plans from Baghdad, to sabotage infrastructure that would export oil through Kurdistan to Turkey.
Regardless, a Kurdish state would be a critical ally to the United States. It’s a cause of hope in a region full of despair. After all, the Kurds are not interested in a caliphate, nor do they seek religious totalitarianism. Their aim is independence: that which they’ve sought since 1918. Their reasons for independence are also morally compelling. Sharing a 600 mile border with ISIL, Iraqi Kurds face a major threat, and Baghdad has abandoned them. But as an independent state, Kurdistan would be free to make international alliances, sell their oil, and combat the ISIL terrorist threat themselves.
But where do other states stand?
Israel has emerged as a significant advocate for an independent Kurdish state. Israel has long maintained discreet military, intelligence, and business ties with Iraqi Kurds since the 1960’s. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently stated “We need to support the Kurdish aspiration for independence. They deserve it.”
It is no surprise that Israel has come out in support of Kurdish independence. Surrounded by extremist groups bent on its destruction, Israel is in desperate need of a reliable ally, like America.
Of course, none of this is simple. Kurdish independence could foster rising Sunni extremism. Any new Kurdish state would prove to be a magnet for ISIL fanaticism. Moreover, Iraq’s Sunni minority would likely be upset by their loss of potential allies against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Since many Kurds reside in Turkey, it’s also crucial to consider the Turkish perspective. While Turkey has opposed a Kurdish state, a growing economic relationship is emerging. Consider the KRG’s recent oil export to Turkey’s Mediterranean oil port of Ceyhan and then on to Israel’s Ashkelon port. Turkey would benefit from a Kurdish political entity with developing market autonomy.
Syria is another story entirely. This week, Kurdish fighters entered Syria to protect a Kurdish city from ISIL. The victor of the Syrian civil war would most likely have to cede land to a newly formed Kurdish state, as the Kurds have fought for, held onto, and continued to protect their cities wherever ISIL threatens.