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

Catherine Shakdam
Catherine Shakdam is a political analyst, writer and commentator for the Middle East with a special focus on radical movements and Yemen. A regular pundit on RT and other networks her work has appeared in major publications: MintPress, the Foreign Policy Journal, Mehr News and many others.Director of Programs at the Shafaqna Institute for Middle Eastern Studies, Catherine is also the co-founder of Veritas Consulting. She is the author of Arabia’s Rising - Under The Banner Of The First Imam
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 success!

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.

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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 prison?

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 30.

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.

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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 application. 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 short.

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 RT.

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 others.In 2015 her research and analysis on Yemen was used by the UN Security Council in a situation report.

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