In a closed-door meeting at a Washington think tank in July, I had the opportunity to ask a high-ranking Iraqi Kurdish official whether he worried that Kurds might be overplaying their hands in Iraq and Syria.
I wondered whether regional powers couldn’t reverse the results of the 25 September independence referendum in Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish gains against ISIS in Syria. As a historian of the 20th century, I expressed concern that Kurds, rather than attaining their century-old dream of a national homeland, could be pushed back by their neighbors and international powers as they were in the 1920s, 1946, 1961, 1975, 1988 and 2003.
My interlocutor, whose name frequently came up in recent discussions on the KRG’s independence and Kirkuk, politely dismissed my points and assured me that my worries were unfounded—especially in Iraq. He informed me and the coterie of other Middle East watchers in the room that Iraqi Kurds, now in the 26th year of their autonomy, would peacefully negotiate their independence with the federal government in Baghdad. If things turned violent, Kurds would defend themselves as they always do.
Monday, 16 October 2017: The 15-Hour War
But on 16 October, Kurds’ famed Peshmerga army (literally “those who face death”) didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t defend Kirkuk, which Iraqi forces had abandoned in the face of the ISIS onslaught three and a half years ago.