The Great Middle Eastern Game: Playing borders and ethnicities to America’s tune

Kurdish peshmerga forces sit on top of a tank on the outskirts of Kirkuk. (Reuters/Ako Rasheed)

Washington is playing a dangerous game of thrones in the Middle East as it looks to exploit Kurdistan’s national ambitions to act a weapon against ISIS, oblivious to the chain reaction it could precipitate in a region racked by instability.

If the Middle East has
long been a hot breeding ground for insecurity and
ethno-religioustensions, America’s new border-drawing,
nation-building game could risk adding yet another layer of
complicated to an already impossible situation.

As the entire region is cracking under the aggravated threat of
terror, torn apart by war and political instability, the United
States is playing with the embers of the very fire Western powers
helped ignite at the turn of the 20th century, when imperial
Europe chose to divide the Ottoman Empire as one would do a cake
at a dinner party.

Divided up into zones according to London and Paris’ whims, the
now infamous Sykes-Picot agreement (May 16, 1916) essentially set
the tone for decades of instability and deep-seated
ethno-religious resentment in the Middle East. Much of the unrest
we have seen explode on the back of the so-called Arab Spring can
actually be traced back to such nation engineering. The result of
intense Western bartering and negotiating, the political map of
the Middle East never really reflected national realities. Rather
they became the expression of colonial powers’ aspirations and
ambitions for the region.

Such oversight came at a heavy price.

And although one would think that past mistakes would act as a
cautionary tale, a reminder that nation building takes more than
just political will to act a binder in between people, it appears
the United States’ chronic myopic understanding of the Middle
East is pushing it down yet another dangerous path.

Well-known for its diplomatic marriages of convenience,
Washington has been contemplating getting into bed with the Kurds
in the name of tactical convenience, its officials acutely aware
that the Peshmerga – Kurdish militias – would serve a perfect
proxy military force against IS (Islamic State, formerly
ISIS/ISIL) in Iraq. But if the Kurds have already proven to be a
force capable of opposing the advances of IS into northern Iraq,
Erbil’s help comes with strings attached – independence.

And though for now the White House remains adamant – publicly at
least – that Iraq will not undergo any splitting of its borders
in the name of national security, Kurdistan’ state ambitions have
found a deep echo in the corridors of the US Department of
Defense. This sudden interest in Kurdistan has of course
everything to do with the fact that the Peshmerga are said to be
willing to act as America’s military arm in the region, a great
substitute to American boots on the ground. With both Democrats
and Republicans about to hit the presidential campaign trail, no
one wants to have to explain any losses in American life. The
lining up of coffins on US soil does not exactly scream electoral

And so, on April 30, the House Armed Services Committee passed a
defense policy draft bill which provides for an aid military
package worth $715 million “to train and equip the Iraqi army
directly to Sunni and Kurdish fighters.”

Rather than deliver aid to Baghdad central government and trust
that all military aid will be routed to where it is needed most,
the DoD opted to bypass the Iraqi state and empower those
factions – the Peshmerga, it sees as tactical allies against the
IS. Even if the language struck a chord with Erbil, Baghdad is
less than happy with the heavy political implications such a
military arrangement would entail in the long-term.

READ MORE: House committee approves $200 million
for arming Ukraine

If the White House announced on the same day the draft bill was
approved that it would oppose it, it is not to say that US
officials will shelf the idea completely. But for now at least,
as Marie Harf, the State Department spokeswoman told reporters at
a media briefing at the White House: “We’ve always said a
unified Iraq is stronger, and it’s important to the stability of
the region as well. Our military assistance and equipment
deliveries, our policy remains the same there as well, that all
arms transfers must be coordinated via the sovereign central
government of Iraq. We believe this policy is the most effective
way to support the coalition’s efforts.”

The real question is for how long?

When it comes to consistency and staying true to its policies,
the Obama administration does not exactly have the best track
record – We’re still waiting on President Obama’s first executive
order to become a tangible reality. Remember Guantanamo Bay

But here is where the quagmire of Iraq risks becoming a dangerous
powder keg. The White House wants the “language” of the
bill to be addressed, not necessarily its implications. “So
we look forward to working with Congress on language that we
could support on this important issue,”
noted Harf on April

It could be this battle of semantics will play out long enough
for the DoD and Erbil to get their ducks in a row and pull the
blanket from under Baghdad’s feet. It would not be the first
time, Washington blindsides one of its allies, here Iraq.

READ MORE: Not only Uncle Sam wants you: Kurds
recruiting former US troops to fight ISIS

Political talks aside, it appears Kurdistan is positioning itself
as America’s anti-terror loyal champion in a region racked by
instability and polluted by strong anti-American sentiments.
Unlike its immediate neighbors: Syria, Turkey, Iran and of course
Iraq, Kurdistan is fiercely pro-American. To top it all Kurdistan
shares an interesting history with Washington. This is not their
first rodeo.

Academic Bryan Gibson believes that the US was more supportive of
the Kurd forces in their 1970s battles with Baghdad than was
previously thought, hinting that Erbil and Washington share a
real connection.

“From 1958-75, US foreign policy in Iraq was designed to
prevent it becoming a Soviet satellite. This led to a series of
covert operations to support groups inside Iraq that were opposed
to Moscow’s imperial designs, like the Ba’ath Party in the early
1960s and the Kurds in the 1970s,”
Gibson told Rudaw in an
interview this April. This friendship did not however prevented
the US from deserting their Kurdish friends in 1975 when Saddam
Hussein stroke a peace deal with the Shah of Iran.

Today, history is somewhat repeating itself; at least in that the
Kurds have risen again a tactical ally against both Iran
influence in the Middle East and the IS.

Proof of this marriage made in geopolitics heaven can be seen in
Erbil’s aggressive hiring of former US military. Ex-US troops are
being recruited by the Kurds to join the Peshmerga by signing up
via an online
. According to
The Daily Beast
, the website is part of a larger recruiting
program called the Kurdish Peshmerga foreigner registration
assessment management and extraction program or F.R.A.M.E for

But if, for now, helping Kurdistan might fall in line with
Washington’s immediate interests, it is likely other regional
allies will take umbrage at Erbil’s national ambition: Turkey and
Iraq being first in line since a Kurdish state would essentially
mean losing both territories and precious natural resources.

Catherine Shakdam for

Catherine Shakdam is a
political analyst and commentator for the Middle East with a
special emphasis on Yemen and radical movements.

A consultant with
Anderson Consulting and leading analyst for the Beirut Center for
Middle East Studies, her writings have appeared in MintPress,
Foreign Policy Journal, Open-Democracy, the Guardian, the Middle
East Monitor, Middle East Eye and many
In 2015 her research and analysis on
Yemen was used by the UN Security Council in a situation

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

Leave a comment