The Kurd Referendum; Implications for U.S. Policy

(CNN) Kurds vote overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Iraq. and (Reuters) BRIEF-Fitch says Kurdish referendum shows persistent Iraqi political risk.

The vote is the basis of a potential revolt, determined by geography associated with ethnography,  differing from a revolution, which is based on general discontent. The prediction is that this will go hot. Kurdish history of the past 100 years, and  features likely to evolve resemble the classic revolution. To make the analogy, it’s only necessary to equate or identify the national government of Iraq with a non representative tyranny.

This analogy means that the situation is served well, with some modifications,  by at least parts of the classic texts: The Natural History of Revolution by Lyford P. Edwards (1927) and The Anatomy of Revolution by Crane Brinton (1938, 1952, 1965). Since second book takes inspiration from the first, with more “structural” analysis, the 1965 Vintage paperback is the primary reference. The bullets points have correspondence with Brinton:

  • Page 86-90, Incompetent use of force. Quoting (p88)
The striking failure on the part of the rulers to use force successfully  is not, however, likely to be an isolated and chance phenomenon.  Indeed, it seems intimately bound up with that general ineptness and failure of the ruling class we have noted in the previous chapter. Long years of decline have undermined the discipline of the troops...There is no coordinating command, no confidence no desire for action. Or if there are some of these things; they exist only in isolated individuals, and are lost among the general incompetence...

In case you’re not familiar with this type of analysis, Brinton was not taking sides.  I’m not endorsing the use of force against the Kurds. But prediction isn’t about what you or I hope will happen.

Despite the taking of Mosul, which relied on heavy U.S. support, this characterization of the will to use force describes Iraq very well. (Reuters) Last flight departs as Iraq imposes ban for Kurdish independence vote. Iraq’s leadership lacks the will and the means to do more.  (I’m not unhappy about this.)

  • Prodromal changes. (Brinton, The First Stages, Chapter 3, Brinton Chapter 2, page 40.) This is the gradual expulsion of the recognized government, and replacement by an “illegal” government Although this has occupied all the years following World War I, the finality occurred with the toppling of Saddam Hussein, by April 2003.

Fitting the Kurds into Brinton’s framework may seem contrived. It works because Brinton’s histories are really the histories of sentiments, which carry over well even when the specific anatomy is different. Brinton considers four revolutions, the English, American, French, and Russian. Even though they are markedly different, takeover by more radical elements is a common thread. The history of Kurdistan post World War I actually includes the following stages, which are due for recapitulation. History may not repeat, but it certainly rhymes:

  • Rule of the Moderates, (Brinton, chapter 5)
  • Accession of the Extremists, (Brinton, chapter 6)

The recent period, before the referendum, is analogous to moderate rule. The 92% vote in favor of independence empowers the extremists. This is a landlocked quasi-state, surrounded by four hostile powers.  Iraq and Syria are weak; Turkey and Iran are strong. Both have their own “Kurdish problem”, in the form of bordering areas with Kurd majorities. The tenacity of the PKK in Turkey against obvious cultural repression gives an idea of the future of extremism in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The accession of the extremists, who because of the popularity of the cause, can’t really be accused of hijacking the situation, is illogical, and yet it will happen. The advantage of studies such as Edwards’ and Brinton’s is that it helps us overcome the relativism of our own experience. In the Middle East, a quiltwork of incompatible ethnicities, this is the way things go. Extremists are randomly extreme. There are almost  inevitably a few extremists who think that the assassination of Haider al-Abadi would further the cause, by causing repression that would further radicalize the Kurds.

Crazy? So was the Gavrilo Princip, assassin of Archduke Ferdinand. The randomness of this the kind of “heat engine” drives events in the Middle East.

The impact on the U.S. will occur mostly after ISIS has been mostly ground down. In Plan to Defeat ISIS Part 3; 1000 Troops to Kuwait; New Doctrine, I wrote

The Shiite Iraq that follows the passing of Sistani will not be a permissive setting for American operations. Other parts of it, such as the Kurdish area, might be. But the kinds of cultural shift and political combinations that would make a viable rump state are prohibited by the strange-to-us cultural animosities.  Iran, a unified and disciplined state, would  steamroller it.

Iraqi Kurdistan is economically viable. The surrounding states will destroy this by embargo and capture of the easy pickings of Kurdistan petroleum assets (map.) The “supergiant” field just northeast of Kirkuk would be first to go. The region is mountainous, excellent terrain for guerilla warfare. We’ve seen before starving populations, captive to wars that can be neither won nor lost.

The obvious flashpoint is Kirkuk, which was subject to “Arabization” under Saddam, and which the Kurds want reversed. This is a classic opportunity for the Iraqi government to reneg, and play, “What’s mine is mine. What’s yours is negotiable.”

In their drive for the Levant, in the absence of very strong U.S. support, Iran will steamroller the Kurdish region. As long as Iraqi Kurdistan remains a part of a federal Iraq, U.S. support serves three interests, containment of Iran, an independent Iraq, and support of an ethnicity with an arguably greater cultural affinity than any other in the Middle East.

The State Department has thrown a few words at the problem: U.S. does not recognize Kurdish independence vote in Iraq: Tillerson. It’s a good start. But we have seen that in the Middle East, words mean little unless backed by force and opposed by sheer exhaustion.

Unless Brinton’s sequence can be averted, the U.S. position will become untenable. The nature of extremists could make resolution impossible. The curtain on this conflict rises perhaps a year, or a bit more, from now.