If the Middle East has lived under the guise of western oligarchs since the fall of the Ottoman Empire (WWI), held hostage to foreign powers’ will and desire to rule and control some of the world’s most precious natural resources: oil, gas and minerals, Washington has upped its game of thrones in Iraq of late, as it is looking to become the region’s new cartographer.
Just as ISIS has become a force to be reckoned with, the US Department of Defence is advocating Iraq’s partition, hoping to exploit Kurdistan’s secessionist ambitions to act an American proxy in this grand campaign for the Middle East we see raging on.
A hot breeding ground for insecurity and ethno-religious based tensions since 1916’s infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, the Arab world now stands before yet another terrifying threat in the form of America’s geopolitical myopy.
Washington’s new border-drawing, nation-building game could risk adding yet another layer of complicated to an already impossible situation.
Oblivious to ground realities the DoD is attempting to replicate imperial Britain’s mistakes by assuming it can control, direct and coerce the region through a clever network of political alliances, playing secession and nationalism as if they were weapons of war.
If ever a lesson should be drawn from history is that nation-building cannot be engineered or assembled on the whim of political powers – not if they’re to last anyway.
Let us remember that much of the unrest we have seen explode on the back of the so-called Arab Spring can actually be traced back to such nation engineering. The result of intense Western bartering and negotiating, the political map of the Middle East never really reflected national realities, rather they became the expression of colonial powers’ aspirations and ambitions for the region.
Such oversight came at a heavy price.
And yet Washington war hawks are forging ahead, oblivious to the fire they might ignite under their feet.
Well-known for its diplomatic marriages of convenience, Washington has been contemplating getting in bed with the Kurds in the name of tactical convenience, its officials acutely aware that the Peshmerga – Kurdish militias – would serve a perfect proxy military force against ISIS in Iraq. But if the Kurds have already proven to be a force capable of opposing the advances of ISIS into northern Iraq, Erbil’s help comes with strings attached – independence.
And though the White House, through its Secretary of State, John Kerry has professed it would not encourage Kurdistan to break away from the rest of Iraq, a new bill endorsed by the DoD tells another story altogether.
With America war lobby on its side it could be just a matter of time before Erbil got everything it wants from its neo-cons allies. After all, in hawkish America, decisions are seldom made by politicians those days, not when the military has become so overwhelmingly powerful.
The DoD’ sudden interest in Kurdistan has of course nothing to do with democracy or even one people’s right to self-determination; rather it is very much self-orientated. At a time when the US has over-stretched its military presence abroad, a proxy would come as a welcome relief, notwithstanding the fact that Washington would spare itself the trouble of rationalizing yet more American troops’ death.
With both Democrats and Republicans about to hit the presidential campaign trail, no one wants to have to explain any losses in American life. The lining up of coffins on US soil does not exactly scream electoral success!
And so, on April 30, the House Armed Services Committee passed a defense policy draft bill which provisions for an aid military package worth $715 million “to train and equip the Iraqi army directly to Sunni and Kurdish fighters.”
Rather than deliver aid to Baghdad central government and trust that all military aid will be routed to where it is needed most, the DoD opted to bypass the Iraqi state and empower those factions – the Peshmerga, it sees as tactical allies against ISIS. If the language has evidently stroke Erbil’s chord, Baghdad is less than happy with the heavy political implications such a military arrangement would entail in the long-term.
By recognizing Kurdistan as a country on paper, the US would essentially act admit to Erbil’s de facto if not de juri sovereign independence.
For now the White House has declared it would veto the bill and call for a “change in language”. Speaking at a media briefing, Marie Harf, the State Department spokeswoman told reporters, “We’ve always said a unified Iraq is stronger, and it’s important to the stability of the region as well. Our military assistance and equipment deliveries, our policy remains the same there as well, that all arms transfers must be coordinated via the sovereign central government of Iraq. We believe this policy is the most effective way to support the coalition’s efforts.”
How long this narrative will hold is open to debate.
When it comes to consistency and staying true to its policies, the Obama administration does not exactly have the best track record – We’re still waiting on President Obama’s first executive order to become a tangible reality. Remember Guantanamo Bay prison?
But here is where Iraq’s quagmire risk becoming a dangerous powder keg. The White House wants the “language” of the bill to be addressed, not necessarily its implications. “So we look forward to working with Congress on language that we could support on this important issue,” noted Harf on April 30.
It could be this battle of semantic will play out long enough for the DoD and Erbil to get their ducks in a row and pull the blanket from under Baghdad’s feet. It would not be the first time, Washington blindsides one of its allies, in this case Iraq.
Political talks aside, it appears Kurdistan is positioning itself as America’s anti-terror loyal champion in a region racked by instability and polluted by strong anti-American sentiments. Unlike its immediate neighbors: Syria, Turkey, Iran and of course Iraq, Kurdistan is fiercely pro-American.
And it’s not all – Washington and Erbil have a bit of a history when it comes to military and political exploitation.
Historian and academic Bryan Gibson told Rudaw in an interview in April that the U.S. was more supportive of the Kurd forces in their 1970s battles with Baghdad than was previously thought, hinting that Erbil and Washington share a real connection.
“From 1958-75, U.S. foreign policy in Iraq was designed to prevent it becoming a Soviet satellite. This led to a series of covert operations to support groups inside Iraq that were opposed to Moscow’s imperial designs, like the Baath Party in the early 1960s and the Kurds in the 1970s,” Gibson said. This friendship did not however prevented the U.S. from deserting their Kurdish friends in 1975 when Saddam Hussein stroke a peace deal with the Shah of Iran.
Today, history is somewhat repeating itself; at least in that the Kurds have risen again a tactical ally against both Iran influence in the Middle East and ISIS.
Proof of this marriage made in geopolitics heaven can be seen in Erbil’s aggressive hiring of former US military. Ex US troops are being recruited by the Kurds to join the Peshmerga by signing up via an online application.
According to The Daily Beast, the website is part of a larger recruiting program called the Kurdish Peshmerga foreigner registration assessment management and extraction program or F.R.A.M.E for short.
But if for now helping Kurdistan might fall in line with Washington’s immediate interests, it is likely other regional allies will take umbrage to Erbil’s national ambition: Turkey and Iraq being first in line since a Kurdish state would essentially mean losing both territories and precious natural resources.
This game of political and tactical overlapping in the Middle East could end up swallowing the US whole – it would not be the first time an imperial power fall prey to such a quagmire. Caught in a complicated and often contradictory web of alliances – fighting alongside Iran against ISIS in Iraq and against Iran in Syria, Washington stands to lose all relevance in the region.
Catherine Shakdam is the Associate Director of the Beirut Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a political analyst specializing in radical movements, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.