LYONS: A Kurdish opportunity

As Iraq shatters, a U.S.-friendly Kurdistan could materialize

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There is no question that modern-day Iraq is a fractured state. This should come as no surprise, since its basic historical foundation was always weak.

It was created in 1920 by the British and French after World War I as they carved up the old Ottoman Empire. Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s efforts to encourage the various political factions to put aside their sectarian and ethnic grievances, which go back hundreds of years, to prevent Iraq’s disintegration has little to no chance of success as Iraq has descended once again into a Sunni-Shiite civil war. Without putting “boots on the ground” (other than special forces), the dynamics of the current mess must be changed in a way that contributes to our long-term strategic interests. One political action that we could take would be to support a long-sought Kurdish objective of a sovereign state that would be a loyal U.S. ally in a sea of turmoil.

We need to face reality. The Nouri al-Maliki Shiite-led government in Baghdad is no friend of the United States. At this point, Prime Minister al-Maliki, a tool of the Iranian government, has squandered the political opportunity that was given him by the United States, which was bought and paid for with the blood and sacrifices of American and coalition military forces. As Massoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, told Mr. Kerry in a clear message, “We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.” For Kurdistan, this could be a long-awaited opportunity.

The Obama administration has put out “feelers” on how we might cooperate with Iran on Iraq’s unraveling. This makes absolutely no sense. Iran has been at war with the United States for more than 34 years and has caused the loss of thousands of American lives, including more than one-third of our military killed or permanently injured in the Iraq war. We should never forget Tehran’s role in supporting the Sept. 11 hijackers.

The fear that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the richest terrorist group in history, may annex a central swath of Iraq and Syria, and declare a caliphate, is real. While this should be of concern, the region already has one in Iran. That nation is the recognized world leader of state-sponsored terrorism and is on the cusp of achieving a nuclear-weapon capability.

The ISIS rapid advance in conquering territory in central Iraq and the city of Mosul opened a direct path to the oil-rich Kirkuk province and Kirkuk city. With the Iraqi army units deserting their installations, the Kurdish military Peshmerga once again answered the call and moved quickly to secure deserted Iraqi army facilities and the Kirkuk oil fields. They also provided protection from ISIS terrorists to Kirkuk city and surrounding Kurdish-dominated towns and villages. This move expanded the Kurdish semi-autonomous region by more than a third. Peshmerga forces are now defending a new 620-mile border against the ISIS army. It has also altered the political landscape, which will not be easily reversed. Clearly, the time for an independent, sovereign Kurdistan has never been more necessary.

The bold move by the Peshmerga to prevent ISIS fighters from capturing Kirkuk and the oil fields should be welcomed by the Obama administration. The Kurds are a proven friend in the region. In the run-up to the 1991 war in Kuwait, they cooperated closely with the United States. In the 2003 Iraq war, when Turkey refused to cooperate with the United States, the Kurds once again stepped up and cooperated with the U.S. After Baghdad was liberated, they backed the American-led effort to establish a constitution, a functioning central government and the rule of law. They have been a reliable partner.

Regrettably, this long and tested partnership has stalled for questionable reasons over the past several years. Ever since Mr. al-Maliki, an Iranian puppet, became prime minister, U.S. administrations have supported the Baghdad central government’s increasingly confrontational approach with the Kurdish region over core issues. These involve a fair share of oil revenues, control of new oil discovered in their region, and protection from historic injustices perpetrated by Baghdad. The Obama administration, in the current crisis, should recognize that the Kurdish Peshmerga now stand as the only viable military force confronting the ISIS juggernaut in the northern part of Iraq.

More importantly, the Peshmerga also stands as the only partner in the region whom we can fully trust. While Baghdad is struggling to form a government, the Kurds have just formed a unity government. It is a functioning, secular democracy with those values deeply imbedded in Kurdish society. This is the essential element for creating a democracy, but it was unattainable by Baghdad.

The Obama administration should provide political and material support to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region to ensure that it can continue to deter and, if necessary, fight ISIS. The administration should also rebuild our relationship with the Kurds to ensure we have a long-term ally in the region — one that is increasingly politically sophisticated, economically sound and shares our core values.

Clearly, it is time to support a viable, economically stable, sovereign Kurdish nation. Another strong, reliable democratic ally of the United States in this region would be most welcome, and it makes sense strategically. An independent, sovereign Kurdistan will certainly not be welcomed by Iran. It is thought that Kurdish relations with Turkey over an sovereign Kurdistan can be managed with U.S. assistance, particularly in view of Turkey’s significant economic investment there.

James A. Lyons, U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.

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