The Only Viable American Exit Strategy from Iraq Must Go Through Kurdistan



Sign the petition for Iraq's three-region solution Opinion The Only Viable American Exit Strategy from Iraq Must Go Through Kurdistan - By Norman Spinrad - October 24, 2007

I have thusfar been very reluctant to broach this plan in public, because this is the down and dirty, it is complex and stepwise, it is very much hardball, and best carried out by sophisticated back-channel diplomacy, and therefore surfacing it in itself may make its implementation that much more difficult. 

For all I know, there may be such back-channel diplomacy along these lines going on already. But there is no public evidence whatsoever that this is so, the level of the Bush administration’s realpolitik street-smarts makes it highly unlikely, nor is there any public hint at such thinking coming from the Democratic opposition, so broaching it in clear finally seems better than nothing.

The Bush Administration’s so-called strategy is mired in the tar baby and its own illusions, and the Democratic alternatives of unilateral pull-out following some announced time-table, if implemented, would only turn a quagmire into a catastrophe. 

So nothing can be achieved until both sides of the issue face the inevitable: nothing is going to prevent Iraq from breaking up into three separate states one way or another, but a simple and simple-minded American withdrawal would destabilize the region or worse, and in the end leave the United States looking despairingly defeated in the eyes of its own citizens. But victory of a sort is achievable and then some, not so much in Iraq as in the region as a whole, if it is creatively redefined.

The fact that must first be faced are that the Shia and the Sunnis hate each other, the Kurds--the largest ethnic population in the world that has never had its own nation-state--have a 100,000 well-armed and experienced militia and are just sitting back and waiting for Iraq to fall apart to the south of them.

This is going to be the outcome. There is not going to be a unified democratic Iraq. But once there is an American policy that accepts this as inevitable, it can, should, and must, turn it to advantage.

It is always easier and cheaper in terms of lives and treasure for a great power to cause trouble than to stop trouble, always better to be able to back an insurgency than to try to suppress it, as witness the American success against the Soviet Union and the Taliban in Afghanistan when its proxies were in the business of overthrowing regimes versus the current situation where American policy is to prop up the Karzai government against warlordism and Taliban insurgency.

So the United States should be talking to the governments of Turkey and present Iraqi Kurdistan and brokering the following three-way deal:

At present, Turkey strongly opposes an independent Kurdistan on its southern border because of its own restive Kurdish population and because Iraqi Kurdistan has more or less allowed its territory to serve as a refuge and base for PKK Turkish Kurd guerillas. So the deal is that the Iraqi Kurds must agree to cooperate with Turkey in eliminating their territory as a base for the PKK and transship their oil through Turkey, in return for which Turkey does not merely permit a sovereign Kurdish state on its southern border, does not merely recognize it, but becomes its champion, its co-protector along with the United States, perhaps even sponsoring its admission to the United Nations.

All three parties benefit. 

The Iraqi Kurds get their sovereign state. 

The Turks not only get that state’s cooperation in dealing with the PKK, but as the international champion of that Kurdish state, the Turkish government establishes better relations with its own Kurdish minority, enhances its credentials for joining the European Union, garners American pressure towards that end, and insures the exclusive use of its territory as the channel by which landlocked and otherwise geopolitically isolated Kurdistan exports its oil, an economic advantage it enjoys clandestinely already. 

The United States then has the ideological victory of taking credit for the birth of Democracy in the Middle East in the form of a Kurdistan which has had a democratic government for over a decade. Under cover of this real victory, America may then withdraw its troops from the Shia and Sunni fragments of former Iraq and let them have at each other, which American forces are powerless to prevent anyway.

But not a total withdrawal. A very friendly Kurdistan, grateful for both the American godfathering of its nationhood and for a protective American presence, would surely welcome a permanent American air base on its territory and a forward positioning American ground base home to a few hundred Special Forces and no more than few thousand regular troops.

From 150,000 troops in a lost war Hotseat to a minimal presence at minimal cost in the regional Catbirdseat.

Iran and Syria would hardly be pleased or reassured, since there would then be large and chronically restive Kurdish minorities within each of their national territories on either side of a well armed and well-financed Kurdish state supported by their traditional regional nemesis Turkey and with American air power and special forces within easy striking distance. 

Better to be in a position to cause trouble than be sucked into a quagmire where you have to try to stop it. Better to have potential benefit backing insurgencies with no more than air cover and special forces than trying to combat them with a large gendarmerie army.

For the United States would be in a position to gain by causing a great deal of trouble for Syria and Iran if those regimes continued to be annoyances. Easy enough to stir up Kurds in Syria and/or Iran when your Kurdish ally would be only too happy to do it for you as long as you supplied arms, protection from Syrian and Iranian retaliation against Kurdistan, and maybe a little friendly air cover to the insurgencies.

The Syrians could be told that the United States would, shall we say, do nothing to impede the natural desire of their Kurdish minority to merge their territory with Kurdistan. Unless Syria ceased meddling in Lebanon and liquidated Hezbollah and all terrorist groups operating from Syrian territory.

The Iranians could be told something similar, with the addition that continuing attempts to build a nuclear weapons program would make it impossible for the United States to act as a restraining force against the Iranian Kurdish insurgency that could begin at any moment if they did not listen to sweet reason.

The Catbirdseat.

Without an American army held hostage in the midst of the civil war in the remains of Iraq, the United States could foment insurgencies in Iran or Syria any time those regimes were foolish enough to ask to be taught a lesson. With or without providing air cover to such insurgencies, depending on its level of displeasure. If the Syrian or Iranian air forces chose to fire at American planes, most of their territory could be declared no fly zones, as was done with Saddam’s Iraq. If the no fly zones were violated, the Syrian air force, flying vintage Soviet hardware, or the Iranian air force, flying old American stuff, could easily be eliminated.

Permanent check by the United States of Syria and Iran in the bloody game of Middle Eastern chess.

That’s the hardball version. Even the beanball version, or at least a high hard one under the chin when necessary to back the opposing side off the plate. But there’s another baseball analogy that constructive diplomacy could apply to such a situation: the trade that helps all ballclubs. 

If they were willing to deal Iran and Syria could get something out of it too.

Because none of this is going to settle the civil war between Sunni and Shia Arabs in Iraq. The only way it can end is with a Shia victory. And then the question becomes how much influence will the United States allow Iran to have with the resultant Iraqi Shia state that would have most of the oil.

Allow because the United States will be in a position to make more trouble for Iran than any dominance over that state and even its oil could ever be worth. But if the present Iranian regime played ball with the United States, stopped its nuclear weapons program, not under threat but as a good will gesture however fatuous, sought a resumption of diplomatic and trade relations, and so forth, it would be no skin off American teeth to allow as close a relationship between Shia Iraq and Iran as the enmity between Arab and Persians, fellow Shia or not, would permit.

All this, of course, admittedly leaves the Iraqi Sunnis the big-time losers. But they were going to be the big-time losers no matter what happened anyway. They were a minority that tyrannized the Shia and the Kurds and the territory where they are the majority holds little or no oil. Left with a rump statelet with no economic base, surrounded by enemies they had made when they held and abused the power in the former Iraq..


However the more secular and sophisticated Sunni Iraqis were the intellectual heart of Saddam’s Iraq, educated, more flexible, more in tune with modern global realities than the Shia. Or the Syrians. No real natural resources there, but real human resources. 

And while they were both co-opted by wretched dictatorships, Iraq was and Syria is officially ruled by parties that at least called themselves Ba’ath. And the single stupidest thing that the American occupation did in Iraq was to outlaw the Ba’ath Party and promulgate a process of "de-Ba’athification" instead of purging only the real leaders of Saddam’s regime and encouraging the Ba’ath Party to clean up its own act.

Because the Ba’ath Party, returned to its ideological roots, was exactly what post-Saddam Iraq needed--a political movement dedicated to transnational secular Arab socialism, the closest thing to a progressive political party the Middle East has ever seen, the only viable local answer in the region to fundamentalist Islamic nationalist rule. 

The Iraqi Ba’athist regime was, and the Syrian version still is, Ba’athist in name only. But the Saddam regime is long gone, the Iraqi Sunni rump state is going to be in very dire straights, and the United States would be in a position to apply enough carrot and stick to encourage or even force the Iraqi Sunnis and the Syrians to make each other an offer they couldn’t really refuse.

Namely a marriage of necessity between the Iraqi Sunnis and Syria, in which the Iraqi Sunni statelet becomes part of a Syria which modifies its political regime into something approaching a true Ba’athist state in the original sense. Brokered, with a bit of regime change if made foolishly necessary by the current Syrian dictatorship, supported, protected, and applauded by a future American government enlightened enough to see that this is in its national interest, its regional interest, even if it means swallowing a bit of "socialism" in the service thereof.

From the Hotseat into the Catbirdseat.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

Better to play the Godfather if you can, than let yourself be cast in the role of the Great Satan.

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