On Wednesday, new details emerged of private meetings held in northern Iraq between U.S. Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis and Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on August 22.
Barzani says Mattis told him the United States doesn’t oppose Kurdistan independence, only the current timetable. It’s the latest twist in a complex question being discussed worldwide. Currently an autonomous region within Iraq, the KRG has set September 25 for a vote on whether to pursue full independence.
At a recent Washington symposium, elected officials, former U.S. military generals, human rights advocates, and religious figures discussed with hope what an independent Kurdistan would mean. One speaker seemed an outlier: a popular historian who has chronicled the faith journeys of presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Abraham Lincoln. Yet author Stephen Mansfield fit right in, rattling off statistics about how the Kurds number 35 million, “the largest people group on earth without a homeland.”
His zeal for the Kurds is born of personal friendship. He has mourned their many setbacks and chronicled their centuries-long journey in his book “The Miracle of the Kurds.” In a phone interview from his office in Washington DC, Mansfield shares of his interactions with top Kurdish leaders, what he believes the Trump administration should do, and his prediction for the results of the independence referendum.
The Kurds’ Place in the Middle East
When Americans read headlines coming from the Middle East, it’s often of rival factions continually in conflict. How are the Kurdish people counter-cultural and their story “miraculous”?
Stephen Mansfield: Of the factions in the Middle East, the Kurds have been known all through the centuries as a very hospitable people. Probably that’s somewhat mountain culture, just like it is in the states. A typically Kurdish response to international events like the refugee crisis is their innate hospitality.
The other thing is their mistreatment by their Islamic brothers in the region has caused them to be more moderate. The senior mullah in Kurdistan once told me, “I am a Kurd first, and a Muslim second,” which is a very unusual way for him to speak. Part of the reason I’m such an advocate for the Kurds is their welcome mat put out to the world, their willingness to help refugees, and their moderation religiously in particular.
For example, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil has a Christian office and a Yezidi office. The last time I was there, there were rabbis from Israel walking around the corridors of government. All of this tells me that the Kurds are a symbol of where we want the Middle East to go.
Recent victories of Iraqi coalition forces look promising for stability in the region. What part have the Kurds played in this years-long fight?
SM: The Kurds have been the primary boots on the ground against ISIS. Their guerilla warriors, now the official military force in the region, are called Peshmerga, which means “those who face death.” It’s primarily been the Kurds who have, block by block, sand hill by sand hill, taken on ISIS. They’ve won most of the victories, done most of the killing, and secured most of the territory.
That’s one of the things that changed U.S. policy. We don’t have a lot of American troops on the ground, and the Iraqi army has proven itself a failure except in very few exceptional circumstances. Originally, U.S. policy was opposed to arming the Kurds in any way, as it’s a violation of certain agreements with Iraq; but when the Iraqi army abandoned the field in some of the early battles, and left billions of dollars of hardware on the field — thus, arming ISIS — the U.S. military decided to start backing the Peshmerga.
The Kurds are historically gifted fighters: they were the bodyguards to the czars, they were often mercenaries for other fiefdoms, kingdoms, nationalities. They are fierce fighters — they teach their young to fight, to fire a weapon from trees, to shoot on one foot, and so on in the mountains from the earliest ages.
In the fight against ISIS, the Peshmerga are the ones gaining most of the victories. Now, the close air support from the U.S. has helped obviously, but the actual taking of ground, the actual eradicating of ISIS warriors, has been done by the Kurds; it’s all because of their commitment to freedom and their historic skill as warriors.
What Kurds’ Independence Might Mean for the Middle East
Your book presents the narrative that, following World War I, the United States and the international community made commitments to the Kurdish people. Could you explain?
SM: It’s an interesting story, especially as we look at it as Americans. President Woodrow Wilson had his Fourteen Points for the post-war world, one of those being self-determination for all peoples. That was essentially the tone for the Treaty of Sevres, which was the initial treaty that guaranteed the Kurds that they would have their own homeland — in fact, it mentions specifically those people groups who had been under Ottoman rule and that they would be given self-determination.
But prior to the Treaty of Sevres, there had been a secret deal by the European powers called the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Sykes-Picot was something the U.S. wasn’t involved in, but it was an agreement between European powers secretly — a deal for carving up the Middle East. As time went on, despite the Treaty of Sevres, which reflected Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the promise of self-determination for all peoples, the secret deal Sykes-Picot began to prevail.
By the 1920s, a new treaty called the Treaty of Lausanne carved up the Middle East and made the Middle East fiefdoms of European powers. The Kurds got swallowed up in that rush to power. They had promises made and promises denied, and here we are today. If this goes on a few more years, it will be almost exactly 100 years later. Perhaps the promises to them will be fulfilled, but it’s been a long, bloody road to get here.
Today, why do the Kurds not want to be a part of Iraq or the surrounding nations of Turkey, Syria, or Iran?
SM: Iraq is simply a failed nation. It was super-glued together after World War I, forcing the Kurds, who are from the Persian side of the Middle East ethnic tree, into a nation with Arabs. The Kurds were always seen as other and lesser, only kept in the larger body of Iraq through oppression and control. They were often maligned, assaulted, and treated as internal enemies as we saw during Saddam Hussein’s reign.
The Kurds would have preferred to remain an independent people in a larger Iraqi Federation. But Iraq has not been able to pull that off; the government in Baghdad is stunningly corrupt. That’s why the Kurds don’t want to remain as an integral part of an Iraqi Federation anymore. The fact is that, as many experts are saying, Iraq is simply going away; it’s dissolving as we speak.
Now, the answer is different regarding surrounding nations. The main reason an independent Kurdish republic would not become a part of Turkey is because Turkey is opposed to Iraq and to Kurdish independence. Turkey at times refers to Kurds as if they’re all part of the guerilla organization the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. Though a trading partner with the Kurds, Turkey under Erdoğan has been an enemy of Kurdish independence.
Lastly, Iran is attempting a Shia takeover of the Middle East that passes through Iraq into Syria. To review: Turkey is opposed, Iraq is failing, Iran wants Shia control — so none of their surrounding neighbors are excited about an independent Kurdistan. As to the reasons why the United States should consider it a good idea and support the Kurds: they are moderate religiously, they are going to be good Western trading partners, and they are going to hold in check the extremism of the region.
It’s understandable that some of the surrounding neighbors are unhappy with what is happening, but I think the benefits will outweigh the deficits over time. The U.S. is going to have to use its considerable political will and military will in the region to persuade an independent Kurdistan’s neighbors that they need to get on board.
The presidency of Marsoud Barzani, current leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has been extended twice. His leadership raises the question: is this referendum initiative founded on democratic intentions?
SM: You’re raising an important question; I’ve had those same concerns. I know Marsoud Barzani, and I believe that his intention has not been to hold on to power. He has said to others in my presence that he’s tired, that he is thankful for the time he’s had, but he’s ready to hand off power. I don’t think that was just posturing.
The problem is that they have been in the middle of a fairly desperate war. I have a number of friends in Erbil. At one point when ISIS was just five miles away, they had to send their families out of the region and arm their homes — pull in their sons-in-law and make sure that they had weapons and ammunition in their homes. So they’ve been busy fighting a war. In societies where there’s a desperate war going on, it’s not uncommon for legislatures to be suspended or executive power to be extended.
I trust these are temporary measures, and that the referendum is an indication of a democratic surge and a return to normalcy as ISIS is defeated. The legislature was not suspended prior to ISIS and executive power was not extended prior to ISIS, so these appear to be emergency measures. Things should return to normal now and this referendum may be the beginning of it.
My biggest concern for Iraqi Kurdistan is the two families that seem to hold power. This reflects the old, aristocratic, British Mandate kind of imprint on that region, and we have to see that dissolve. We want those families to be as happy, powerful, and wealthy as their businesses allow them to be, but they should not hold political power beyond what’s legitimate.
You mentioned the Kurdish PKK group active in southern Turkey, known for violent terrorism. Can the U.S. support an independent Kurdistan when our NATO ally Turkey has expressed opposition?
SM: Yes, because our NATO ally Turkey has been recently an enemy of democracy in the region as a whole. The U.S. position has got to be that Turkey, which has oppressed its Kurdish citizens for decades, is going to have to find a more moderate stance.
We also have to exert pressure. I know we don’t want to mess around with the internals of other countries, but Erdoğan is a dangerous figure and inconsistent. I mean, he made a speech not long ago about the re-taking of Jerusalem, for heaven’s sake! This is not a man whose balance, wisdom, and statecraft can be trusted.
It’s not uncommon at all for the U.S. to call for measures in the Middle East that its own allies oppose. To simply oppose self-determination of a people who have been promised freedom for a century and are due it now is unreasonable on the part of Turkey. I think the U.S. has to stare them down and make a case on the floor of the United Nations.
U.S. Policy So Far: Talk, But Not Action
What is your assessment of the Trump administration’s foreign policy thus far, and are there certain steps you hope they take in regards to the Kurdish referendum?
SM: Thus far, the Trump administration has given verbal support to an independent Kurdistan, but it hasn’t taken any decisive steps. A lot of that has been because of all the distraction here in DC. It’s what we’re all kind of disgusted by in the news, how they’re trying to solve all these internal crises. But the referendum is a wise move on the part of Kurdish leaders, because it’s going to force this whole issue front and center.
In the campaign and since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, there has been tacit support for Kurdish independence, and strong support for the Kurds militarily, but there hasn’t been any decisive diplomatic or military action that will guarantee an independent Kurdistan. There’s been a combination of inexperience and chaos in the Trump White House, and thus in the Trump State Department, but maybe things will settle down soon. Decisive action is what’s going to have to come next.
When you begin to discuss military support, there’s a natural reaction among libertarians and some conservatives: Is this all just about oil and trying to establish Western-style democracy in a far-off land?
SM: An independent Kurdistan is in America’s economic interest, I don’t think anybody’s hiding from that. It is in our best interest to encourage democracy around the world. I’m not a neocon, and I don’t think that’s the primary mission of the U.S., but a general encouragement of republican values and democracy means stability, strength, and self-determination for people.
The main reason that most Americans’ minds and hearts are pro-Kurds is there is a century of delayed promises to these people. They have proven themselves, they have governed themselves, and are due self-determination. I think people in Washington would be for an independent Kurdistan even if it were not in the U.S. economic self-interest.
The fact is, the Kurds in Iraq are sitting on oil fields that are second only to the Saudi oil fields. And the Saudi oil fields are rapidly depleting. I know that because I lecture at a Saudi university and they talk about how they are actually developing scientific alternatives to petroleum because they know that the fields are being depleted.
We have a case here of win-win. Yes, it is the right thing to do if America believes in its own founding values. But, this is also of economic and political value to us. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing. We have certainly supported causes in the past that were to our economic benefit and sometimes weren’t even democratic in their intent.
Even among informed journalists, some claim the Kurdish independence movement is driven more by the West than Kurdish families and leaders. How do you respond?
SM: We’re going to find out with the September 25 referendum whether that is true. The fact is that it was not the U.S. that scheduled this referendum, and it’s not U.S. leaders who are waving the flag of Kurdish independence. It’s the Kurdish leaders themselves.
It’s already been a desire for many of the Kurds in eastern Turkey, Syria, and Jordan. But there’s no question for me that the Kurdish people, particularly from Iraqi Kurdistan, are the primary proponents of independence.
I’ll make a little bit of prediction here: you’re going to see at least 80 percent of the Kurdish-Iraqi citizens voting for independence on September 25. Experts are predicting a 95 percent independence vote. I’m a little more moderate, but 80 percent would be stunning and would be a basis to approach the United Nations for the process of nationhood to begin.