Betting on Two Horses: Kurdish Assertiveness and the American Bind

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The recent developments by Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria have led to a new series of challenges in resolving either crisis. As Daesh is being slowly dismantled, the battle for Raqqa is in its final phases and the siege of Deir-ez-Zor has been broken, Kurdish groups in both Iraq and Syria have become increasingly vocal, active, and assertive. This has been characterized by two main actions: the Kurdish independence referendum held in Iraq and the offensive towards Deir-ez-Zor meeting Russian and Assad forces on the Euphrates river while seizing some of the regions oil fields. Despite the overwhelming success of both these endeavors, this has put their main ally, the United States, in a precarious regional situation: how can they balance their other alliance commitments and state interactions when no other actors wish to see an empowered or independent Kurdish state?

The first issue to tackle is the increased assertiveness taken in Syria. The offensive towards Deir-ez-Zor is an extremely antagonizing move towards the Assad and Russian positions. While they have maintained the predicted position of not crossing the Euphrates river, they have driven this offensive down the eastern bank towards some of the largest natural gas and oil field reserves in Syria, with the accompanying system of pipelines. These fields will add, at least, 47700 barrels of oil a day to Kurdish production if seized, and are, by a large margin, the largest energy reserves in Syria. While empowering the Kurdish position, it has also jeopardized relations with the Assad regime and their Russian allies. For the majority of the conflict these groups have overlooked each other, despite both sides knowing their objectives would eventually clash. Assad has vowed on multiple occasions to reunify Syria, while the Kurds have sought independence. Yet, American support for the Kurds was not meant to bring them on a closer collision course with Russia. While the Americans do not support Assad, the main objective for the Kurds is to destroy ISIS, not worsen relations in an already strenuous super power dynamic.

On the other side of the border in Iraq, the highly successful and publicized September 25th referendum for Kurdish independence has signaled their intent clearly to all neighboring states. It seems an unlikely coincidence that it was timed up with the closing operations in Raqqa and the Deir-ez-Zor offensive. The Iraqi government is the largest loser with the integrity of its territory being at stake. Immediately after the referendum the Iraqi government responded with threats of troops movements, oil field seizures, and moves to halt incoming flights. Abadi and the Iraqi government cannot lose another piece of Iraqi territory; it can seriously threaten the stability of the state. The weakness displayed by the Iraqi government if they capitulate to Kurdish demands, directly after being ravaged by ISIS would display their inability to maintain their state. Similarly, this would set a horrible precedent and send a dangerous signal to Shi’a PMU militias whose loyalty is questionable: if the Kurds have earned their own independence after all this bloodshed, why should we give up for less? This is particularly scary given their allegiance to Iran. Yet, Iraq and the Kurds are both allies of the United States. How can they manage both? The Americans cannot let the propped-up state of Iraq fail, it would simply add to their long list of failures in the region and send a similar message to competing regional powers. Simultaneously, they cannot abandon the Kurds without losing confidence from their own proxy networks.

The indirect effects of the new found Kurdish assertiveness carries larger implications for the region, as a whole. Since the referendum there has been newfound co-operation between Turkey and Iran; opponents in Syria. Simultaneously, Iraq has saddled closer to Tehran: they are currently holding joint military drills on the border of the Kurdish regions. Many of the forces needed to be kept under control for the American interests to succeed are uniting against Washington’s main proxy ground force, causing serious political damage. Turkish and Iranian relations are at a high, while Baghdad and Tehran are cooperating, both in order to counter, unforeseen, American blowback. This has the potential to jeopardize the region by creating a counter alliance to the GCC states. An Iran-Iraq-Turkey alliance, backed by Russia, while extreme, is possible, and would create a tense bipolar standoff in the region between the two alliance structures. It would only be natural that this alliance further includes Syria and Lebanon, given their current positions. This would effectively split the Middle East in two hemispheres.

The mild scenario is that these forces unite to crush the Kurdish region and then move on their separate ways. This scenario is still dangerous. The Kurds are landlocked and vulnerable to blockade, the powers surrounding them can easily, conventionally, destroy them if they choose this approach. Yet, trust in the United States will still be damaged. Lower tier powers and independence groups will no longer deem the U.S. viable allies, and understand their role as dispensable tools. Similarly, worldwide views of liberty will be damaged as a group fighting for self-determination was left to rot after fighting passionately to defeat Daesh. On the contrary, the possible counter-coalition that will form regionally would comprise a massive strategic failure: losing control of the Middle East.

This has put U.S. foreign policy makers in a lose-lose situation. It will be domestic suicide to let the Kurds be destroyed while also similarly disastrous to support Barzani in the face of the negative consequences to interstate relations in the region. The U.S. has backed two horses yet only one can win. Finding the least costly way out of this predicament is the only way forward, Likely, the logical choice when making this calculation is to not support Kurdish independence.

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