You can hardly blame Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani for playing the pied piper. Yet while full independence for all three Kurdish entities is not a new subject to jostle with, it is one which is hard to ignore for Obama.
But well worth the effort.
Firstly, Kurdistan is getting a lousy deal from Iraq and the West in that it has little to show for any spoils of war from giving IS a bloody nose in a number of key battles which have returned towns back to their original inhabitants; secondly Baghdad renegades on an oil deal, so Erbil’s coffers are running low; and thirdly there is little, if anything for the Kurds to be cheerful about in the new Iran deal, which will certainly stave off some of its oil exports to regional customers.
With Barzani’s circus in town, it’s hardly surprising that the Kurds will be holding out their cap to their natural ally, Obama, despite US air strikes stopping IS militants from taking Erbil in the earlier days of the campaign. It also raises a number of poignant questions about whether the US is a true ally of Kurdistan or more shackled to them in a shotgun wedding which has little bang for its buck left, with both the bride and bride groom already twisting their wedding rings.
The problem with the Kurds is that they have still yet to decide, despite today’s charade for the cameras, who to align themselves with fully in terms of regional superpowers – Iran (unlikely), Iraq (possibly) or Turkey (likely) regardless if they dance to Obama’s beat.
And also, can you trust them?
For the US, the Kurds are doing the fighting in Syria and in Iraq and so are critical for battlefield victories. For the moment. But if the four states which Kurdistan straddles form a political entity and strike for independence, this could upset the geopolitical apple cart, given that Iraq will be shattered and Turkey would probably be in turmoil. Neither of those scenarios bodes well for the twilight period of Obama’s sycophants who have already written the history books. For Obama, President Recep Ergogan of Turkey is the enemy to keep closer.
The Turkish leader plays a central role to keeping the Kurdish entities very much divided while he uses the Kurds expertly for his own devices. In the summer of last year, it was interesting to see how he refused to help them fight IS, but then also allowed them a corridor for their own fighters. Erdogan is now championing the cause for a buffer zone in Syria, a notion tacitly linked to sending his own troops in, under a plan sketched out by two his own experts and those of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
But just when you think you understand the chequer board, Syria’s Assad plays a masterly move to distract the Kurds. Just recently, his government held out a hand and flirted with Kurd leaders in the north eastern province, offering them autonomy of sorts. But not full independence. In return, one can only presume that payback for Assad would be help on the battlefield elsewhere against a new generation of ‘moderate’ fighters who are being trained – yes, you’ve guessed it – in Syria just this week by Turkish army and US elite forces. The offer by Assad was brilliant. Timed just weeks before the parliamentary elections in Turkey where much hope is placed on the Kurds winning a minimum number of seats which will give them leaverage never before imagined in terms of calling the shots over their own destiny. Opposition leaders in Turkey are quick to explain though that ‘independence’ for the Kurds there is not really on the plate; equality is the real deal they seek. However, if post election squabbling ensues and Erdogen reacts to their wins in the house, this would marginalize them once again. No one in the Peoples’ Democratic Party ‘Halklar?n Demokratik Partisi’ – HDP – wants to think about going back to the old days of fighting for a free independent country. But the elections on June 7th will certainly be a date which will be etched into the minds of protagonists like Barzani.
Today, while he courts Obama and presents the withered idea of ‘self determination’ – a rye euphemism designed to cover a multitude of sins – he will know only too well it will be Erdogen, and not the US President, who holds the keys; although in all fairness there are a number of other intractable problems to overcome, namely cosmic-proportioned corruption both in Erbil and in the other ‘states’ and an infamously insidious regard by each of them towards one another.
‘Charm and dependability are seldom found in the same package’ might be an adage that Obama might note well.
Getting into bed with the alluring Kurds who promise much, for the region’s superpowers, will always be tricky given that the Kurds don’t even trust themselves. Getting out of bed with your watch and wallet on the bedside table might prove harder.
Martin Jay is the Beirut correspondent for the UK’s Daily Mail and is also the English language editor of An Nahar. A shorter version of this article appeared in The National on 4th May, 2015. His Twitter is @MartinRJay.