An effort to form a new state out of the most stable and U.S.-friendly region of Iraq has gained an ally in Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
The New York Democrat called for President Trump to endorse the formation of an independent state out of northern Iraq, which is populated by an ethnic minority known as the Kurds. Such a move would reward the Kurdish militias, who proved the most effective local fighting force in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But it would also redraw the lines of the modern Middle East, which would have ramifications for other U.S. allies.
"The Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Middle East without a homeland and they have fought long and hard for one," Schumer said Wednesday. "Despite this, the Kurds continue to get a raw deal and are told to wait for tomorrow, which is why it's past due that the world, led by the United States, immediately back a political process to address the aspirations of the Kurds."
That statement follows a referendum that saw about 93 percent of Kurdish voters support a split from the central Iraqi government and the formation of their own state. Officials from the semi-autonomous region of Kurdish Iraq proceeded with the vote despite opposition from the U.S.-backed central government Baghdad.
"The United States government and the coalition's concern about this and the timing of this referendum was we didn't want to splinter Iraq," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday. "We see the primary issue as taking on ISIS, defeating ISIS, annihilating ISIS, so that they never come to try to rule over and terrorize the Iraqi people again. We'd like to keep our eye on the ball with that. That failed; that is a concern of ours and is deeply disappointing."
The referendum is a sign of the regional rivalries that have complicated American efforts to counter the rise of ISIS since 2014. The terrorist group took advantage of the Syrian civil war to establish a base of operations and then launched a major invasion of Iraq, carving a "caliphate" out of adjoining territory in both countries.
The official Iraqi military collapsed, but Kurds in Syria and Iraq proved to be crucial members of the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the terrorists. That strained U.S. relations with Turkey, a key NATO ally, because Turkish Kurds have been fighting a separatist war against the government in Ankara. Turkey regarded U.S. coordination with the Syrian Kurds as a potentially greater threat to their interests than ISIS.
The Turks responded by attacking Kurdish positions at various times in recent years in order to pre-empt the possibility of the Kurds acquiring independence in Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even accused the U.S. of cooperating with terrorists. "[Such accusations are] not only not true, but they're harmful to our relationship," then-State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in January.
Schumer implied that Trump should rebuff Erdogan, who has pursued increasingly authoritarian policies in recent years.
"In the months ahead, I hope all Iraqis will engage in a dialogue and peacefully determine the best way to accommodate the well-deserved and legitimate aspirations of the Iraqi Kurds," Schumer said. "Iraqi's neighboring countries, however, led by despots who all oppose a Kurdish State because it threatens the status quo and their self-interests, need to respect the need for the Kurds — and the Iraqis — to determine their own future."