Editorial Board

Iraq's Kurds Deserve Independence. Just Not Yet.

The U.S.'s Middle Eastern allies pushed too far with their referendum.

Too early to pop the champagne.

Photographer: Safin Hamed/Getty Images

It is surely true that, after centuries of being ruled by others, the Middle East’s 30 million Kurds deserve a country of their own. It is just as certain that neither the Kurds nor their neighbors are ready for it.

QuickTake The Kurds

That is the unsatisfying reality revealed by the immediate reaction to the overwhelming vote last week in favor of independence in Iraq’s Kurdish region. Iran, Iraq and Turkey have shut off flights into Kurdish areas, clamped down on trade, and threatened military action should the Kurdish leadership move toward declaring independence.

A nascent nation that is landlocked and at virtual war with its neighbors is likely to be strangled in the crib. The Kurds have oil under the ground, but that matters little if there is no way to export it -- and the Turkish and Iraqi governments have made clear they will shut down any pipelines out of a sovereign Kurdistan. Unless the international community pledged to keep the Kurds on welfare indefinitely, they would almost certainly have to turn to black markets and smuggling operations run by terrorist groups.

There are other practical hurdles: The Kurdish areas depend on water-sharing agreements with those same neighboring nations; there are many non-Kurds in the ostensible new nation and disagreement as to where to draw its borders; the regional Kurdish government is heavily indebted; and its government and military may not be as united as voters assumed (for much of the 1990s, rival Kurdish factions fought a virtual civil war).

Regionally, the spark of independence would no doubt inflame secession movements in Iran and Turkey, where advocates for Kurdish independence are routinely met with brutal military force. If Syria’s Kurds attempted to join the new state next door, it would make it that much harder to reach a political deal to end the civil war. And it’s hard to see how a post-Islamic-State Iraq could mend itself and make peace among its other ethnic and religious factions if 20 percent of its territory and population have seceded.

None of this is to say, again, that the Kurds do not deserve U.S. support. Since the Gulf War, the Iraqi Kurds have been America’s staunchest ally in the Middle East. Under the protection of a U.S. no-fly zone, they pieced together a functional, autonomously governed region until Saddam Hussein was finally toppled in 2003. And in the fight against Islamic State, they and their brethren from Syria have been the U.S.’s most effective proxy forces.

Yet statehood is not achieved merely as the result of good behavior. Nor do appeals to justice and fairness by themselves end crises. They have to be dealt with pragmatically.

If the U.S. really wants to support the Iraqi Kurds, it should focus getting them a fair deal in a loosely federalized Iraq: one that would ensure political autonomy for the Kurds within their region, a better revenue-sharing agreement on oil exports, and a shared role in national defense and foreign policy. Likewise, any international agreement to end the civil war in Syria must ensure that those Kurds get some level of autonomy and protection. Washington and its allies should also do more to push Turkey to stop its assault on Kurdish populations. 

For the time being, the dream of Kurdish nationhood must remain just that. There is still a lot the U.S. can do, however, for the Kurdish people.

    --Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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