The Melians and the Kurds

During the Peloponnesian War Athens gave an ultimatum to the people of Melos (a small, neutral, but strategically located island-nation): the Melians must become a vassal state of Athens or be conquered. From the negotiations came the adage that, in real politik, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
Last week Iraqi forces moved into Kirkuk, the Kurdish city in Northeast Iraq. This confirmed what many had forecast: Iraq was not going to “let go” of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Greater Kurdistan (depending on how defined), covers 75,000 to 150,000 square miles, includes parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and is populated by perhaps 25 – 35 million Kurds.
Last month Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in a non-binding referendum. Non-binding or not, the Kurds want independence. And, as they fought with the US against the insurgency in Iraq, fought with the US against ISIS, and fought against Saddam in 1991, they now want the US to help them. Further, the Kurds are pro-democracy and strongly pro-US.
Meanwhile, Iraq is moving forces into northern Iraq, Iran is assisting Iraq, and is presumably ready to move on Kurds in Iran. Turkey, a NATO ally, has long considered Kurdish independence movements as insurgencies, and after last week’s referendum has threatened to close the border and “squeeze” the Kurds.
And, while the US is politically, militarily and economically stronger than all the countries involved, the US is far away. And Iraq, Turkey and Iran are permanently present. In addition, there’s Russia; Kurdish independence doesn’t serve Russian interests. All are stronger than the Kurds. All can, in all likelihood, outlast any US commitment.
There’s an apparent ‘up-side:’ Iran’s interests generally are opposite those of the US and our allies; Russia’s interests in the Middle East also run counter to ours; and Turkey, despite being a NATO ally, is led by a man (President Erdogan) who seems to be working at cross-purposes to virtually every US interest in the Middle East; Kurdistan seems like an easy fit for the US.
It’s fashionable, whenever anyone talks of borders or countries of the Mid East (or elsewhere) to “blame the British.” This is usually followed by everyone nodding knowingly, as if they would never have made such “mistakes.” Sure.
In 1916 two men, a British government official – Mark Sykes, and a French government official – Francois George Picot, sat and drew lines across the Middle East. Those lines became, essentially, the borders of much of the Middle East. Arguably, few people like those lines.
But the truth is, they wouldn’t like any other lines. The Ottomans would have never accepted a Kurdish state that consisted of a significant portion of modern Turkey, nor would modern Turks; Iran wouldn’t accept losing their northwest corner; Iraq would never accept losing northern Iraq – or the oil that lies beneath it.
None are likely to accept a new Kurdistan.
Border disputes are a given throughout history, and such issues are still argued in as “civilized” a place as Europe. There remain outstanding disputes in the borders of Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania, to name just a few.
In Europe they are – at least recently – settled peacefully. But in most of the world, it seems that 2500 years later, the observation by the Melians remains accurate.
Only if a stronger power were to move in and guarantee independence might Kurdistan become free. Alone, the Kurds will continue “to suffer as they must.”
But, for the US to actively support Kurdish independence, two questions need to be answered: 1) Do we have the assets to secure Kurdistan while Kurds work through their many differences and form a viable country, and 2) How would this affect other US interests?
The answer to the first question appears to be, in practical terms, probably no, particularly as we face a crisis with North Korea and potential crises with both China and Iran; the answer to the second question is harder to answer, but there are potentially massive negative consequences, including the break-up of Iraq, expansion of Iranian influence, and increased Russian influence.
Many things are possible, and support of those who seek freedom is a pillar of American interests. But we need to weigh the costs versus the risk. A free Kurdistan would be a good thing. But we need to consider if we can actually afford it before we commit to help.