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The Kurdish peshmerga are battling the Islamic State and winning the world's affection. But step back for a minute. There's reason to be concerned.
The United States has been hitting Islamic State fighters in Iraq with airstrikes for a few days, and now US Pesident Barack Obama has decided to arm the Kurds. The CIA has started delivering light arms, shoulder-fired weapons, and ammunition to the Kurdish peshmerga, and we're left asking — what could possibly go wrong?
The argument in favor of providing arms to the Kurds is a pretty solid one, admittedly. Iraqi Kurds have been solid friends to the United States. The Kurdistan Regional Government is fairly stable and progressive, relative to the nations surrounding it. The peshmerga played a key role in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and can be an effective fighting force with the right support. And, most importantly, with the Islamic State seizing territory across Iraq and Syria — with the United States unlikely to "put boots on the ground," as American politicians put it — the Kurdish peshmerga are doing the job that many nations want done but aren't willing to do themselves.
The Islamic State is seriously bad news, but considering America's history of failed proxy wars, its history of failed military interventions in the region, and its history of misunderstanding or ignoring sectarian divisions — some caution might be warranted.
Here are some reasons to be concerned about this latest American adventure in arming one group to attack another.
Iraqi Kurdish protesters call for independence on July 3, 2014 in Erbil. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)
Once again, Sykes-Picot — the secretive 1916 agreement between the United Kingdom and France that drew borders in the Middle East — is screwing up everything.
Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region in Iraq with its own government, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but most ethnic Kurds want their own independent nation. KRG President Massoud Barzani is promising to hold a referendum on independence, and if the referendum were to happen, it would likely pass.
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It's bad form to root against an oppressed ethnic group's quest for its own nation. But let's hear out the devil's advocate.
From the perspective of US strategic interests, Kurdish nationalism is problematic. The Iraqi central government and most Iraqis oppose it. The United States has long wished to see a political solution to sectarian conflict in Iraq, with the end-goal being a stable and unified nation. It's unclear whether the advance of the Islamic State changes that. Arming the Kurds, and, in effect, turning them into a proxy force, means arming their vision of an independent Kurdistan and a fractured Iraq.
Peshmerga in Kirkuk on July 3, 2014. (AFP/Getty Images)
It's not just the Islamic State claiming territory in Iraq. The peshmerga have already used the conflict with IS as an excuse to take control of the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk, which Kurds say is theirs, historically. And they've started pumping and selling oil there, a direct confrontation with Iraq's central government, which runs the oil game.
That's widened an already very wide rift between Kurdistan and the government in Baghdad. A spokesperson for the Iraqi Oil Ministry called the oil and land grab a "constitutional breach" and a "violation of Iraq's sovereignty." Then Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Malaki fired his foreign minister, who is Kurdish, and replaced him with a fellow Shiite. The foreign minister for the KRG fired back, saying the move "doesn't leave any room for power sharing."
Iraqi Kurdistan is just one Kurdish homeland. There are 13 million Kurds living in Turkey, 6.5 million in Iran, and 2 million in Syria.
It's all hypothetical at this point, but it's worth considering the active Kurdish independence movements in each of these countries. An independent Kurdistan might inspire some people to migrate but might inspire others to fight to enlarge its borders. Governments might crack down on Kurdish populations. Peshmerga could use their new CIA-provided firepower to support their Kurdish neighbors.
It's hard to know how all this would turn out. The point is this: Kurdish nationalism is a regional issue that touches a lot of countries, a lot of land, and a lot of people. Using the peshmerga as a proxy force in today's conflict can have reverberations outward into the broader Middle East and forward into the future.
An Iraqi Kurd holds portraits of President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massud Barzani (L) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani (R) on April 27, 2014, in Erbil. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)
As an autonomous region in the north of a failed state, Kurdistan looks like a model of political stability, but that stability is very tenuous. The KRG is ruled by two rival factions, each headed by one of two enormously powerful families — the Talabanis and the Barzanis.
There's the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Ideologically, they're very similar. But they compete for power, and that competition has becomes violent in the past, especially in the 1990s, when party-linked militias launched a civil war that's now known as the "brother killings."
Want a factoid that will make you forever doubt the ability of KDP and PUK to live in perfect harmony? During the conflict, the KDP actually reached out to — wait for it — Saddam Hussein for help defeating the PUK in the city of Erbil.
The two parties have found a peaceful coexistence at the moment. But that could easily change. Especially worrying is that these political divisions extend to the peshmerga. Every unit is aligned with either the KDP or the PUK. Not ideal. Not ideal at all.
Iraqi policemen stand stand guard during a protest against the killing of a Kurdish journalist on May 12, 2010. (AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdistan is a really bad place to be a journalist.
In a 2013 report titled "Free Speech Under Attack," Human Rights Watch warned that the KRG's security agency, the Asayish, was arresting, detaining and threatening journalists, activists, and opposition leaders.
More troubling still: Kurdish authorities have tried to pass new legal restrictions on free speech. In 2012, the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs backed a law that would have criminalized "insults" against "religious and national symbols." That's conveniently vague, you'll notice.
Parliament blocked the law, which was called the "Draft Law to Protect Sanctities," but high-level officials in the justice and religious ministries ordered their subordinates to enforce it anyway. The "Head of Public Prosecutors" wrote in a letter to the justice ministry, "if any subject disrespects religion, Kurdish history, or national symbols through the media" that the ministry would "take legal action against the source of the publication."
How bad can the press suppression get? Pretty bad.
In May 2010, Sardasht Osman, a 23-year-old journalist was murdered, and lots of people suspect the KRG was involved. Osman told friends and colleagues that he'd been receiving threats after writing articles critical of the Kurdish government. The threats seemed related, in particular, to an article titled, "I am in Love with Barzani's Daughter," a satirical class critique in which he imagined marrying the daughter of Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani. That was a step too far, it seemed.
He was abducted on May 4, and the next day his body was discovered. He'd been tortured and shot twice in the head. The government conducted a secretive investigation using an anonymous committee and concluded that he'd been murdered by an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group, Ansar al-Islam. The group denied it, saying in a statement, "if we kill or kidnap someone, we will announce it ourselves. We don't need anybody to lie for us."
Thousands of Iraqi Kurdish anti-government protesters chant slogans and wave flags on March 7, 2011. (Shwan Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images)
The KRG has proven that it's willing to silence dissent in the media. It's also willing to crush it in the streets. The Arab Spring hit Iraqi Kurdistan in March 2011 and the KRG wasn't pleased with protesters' corruption allegations and criticisms of two-party dynastic rule.
"Though democratically elected," as HRW said of the crackdown, "the KRG responded to these protests in much the same way as despots around the region."