The Kurdish Referendum For Independence Is A Mistake That Could End In Slaughter

Kurdistan Getty Images/Safin Hamed

Wes Martin Retired Colonel, U.S. Army
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Middle Easterners have an interesting philosophy. “When in position of weakness, how can I negotiate. When in position of strength, why should I?”

The problem with this philosophy is that it often results in confusion because of misguided perceptions about strength. Saddam Hussein made this mistake in 1990 and again in 2003. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is making this mistake now. By proceeding with its referendum and overwhelming vote for independence, the KRG has written its own death warrant.

The world is grateful to the Kurdish people and their military force, the Peshmerga, for having stood firmly against ISIS while Iraqi soldiers sometimes fled their bases and cities. The Peshmerga’s entry into — and defense of — Kirkuk saved that city from slaughter and impeded ISIS operations to the south. Now that ISIS has been removed, global gratitude does not translate into support for the Kurdish people demanding independence from Iraq.

Ever since my days as the senior antiterrorism officer for all Coalition Forces in Iraq, I have been a strong supporter of the Kurdish people and an admirer of the Peshmerga. Their support of the United States and the stabilization they brought to Kurdistan allowed me to focus my attention on southern and western Iraq. The American military presence in the Kurdish capital city of Erbil at that time was one company of soldiers serving in a peaceful environment.

Years of fighting ISIS without sufficient resources severely weakened the Peshmerga and exposed flaws that went mostly unnoticed by the outside world. The aging — or “Old Peshmerga” — warriors were being back-filled by “Young Peshmerga.” Unfortunately, time was not available to train the young soldiers Personal experience gained from fighting Saddam remained with the seniors. Casualties within both groups mounted.

Because of corruption within both KRG and Peshmerga leadership, weapons and equipment sent to Kurdistan by the Americans often ended up on the black market. It was not uncommon for Peshmerga fighters to have to go to local bazaars and use their own limited money to purchase ammunition.

The perception that the Peshmerga will be able to stand against the same Iraqi army that ran from ISIS is not realistic. Just as in Syria, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as well as its subordinate Quds Force, and Shia militias will be supporting the local army.

The entire Middle East is suffering from lingering effects of the once-secret Pico-Sykes Agreement of 1916, which served only the interests of France and England. The subsequent straight-line borders that followed the fall of the Ottoman Empire gave no consideration to people, tribes, and ethnic groups who comprised the region. Kurdistan should have been its own nation. This region should not have been split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

That was yesterday. Today’s reality is that Iran will prevent Kurdistan from breaking free from Iraq. Iran is building a religious fundamentalist axis from its eastern border to the Mediterranean. Iraq is in the middle with its rich oil fields, including those in Kurdistan. Iran is not going to allow Iraqi Kurds to become independent, knowing they will want to become part of a new Kurdish nation.

Turkey is also not going to risk losing its Kurdish region. This referendum has already jeopardized the Kurdish Regional Government’s relationship with the Erdogan government. As for the U.S. dilemma, the Middle East is already an extremely volatile region. Adding another civil war to the equation will only compound the problem.

Instead of a referendum a slaughter will result.The Kurds need to clean up corruption within their own government, re-build the Peshmerga, and work to bridge the gap between Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. With Barzani having just resigned from leadership and Talabani’s recent death, the last objective should be made somewhat easier.

These progressive actions will ease tension with Turkey and prevent a fight with the Iranian-managed Iraqi army against which today’s Kurdish Regional Government and Peshmerga cannot win.

Wes Martin is a retired Army colonel who served as the Senior Antiterrorism Officer for all Coalition Forces in Iraq.