Last month, the United States announced the construction of the largest consulate complex in the Kurdistan Region capital Erbil. The news renewed excitement among some Kurds that Washington intends to turn the consulate into an embassy in a possible Kurdish state.
The new excitement comes after the bitter disappointment Kurds have felt since September 2017, when Washington strongly opposed Kurdistan's independence referendum.
Kurds hope that a strong US presence in the Kurdistan Region will help them against, or at least offer some security from the surrounding Turks, Arabs, and Persians. With that ambition in mind, the KRG has desperately encouraged and facilitated US presence on its soil. This optimism comes at a time that relations between the KRG and its neighboring countries just started showing signs of recovery after seven months of stagnation.
Last September, Kurdistan held an independence referendum that met with aggressive backlash from Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara. The Kurdistan Region lost large amounts of territory it had controlled before the referendum, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. It also may lose control over things such airports and border crossings, rights it had enjoyed for a couple of decades. The worst outcome has perhaps been the dramatic deterioration the KRG has experienced in its ties with neighboring countries such as Turkey.
The current foreign policy of the KRG has enmeshed Kurds in a quandary. The belligerent region seeks, and naively trusts, outside support to balance its power against the central government at home and its hostile neighbors. Such attitude was conceived during Kurdish armed insurgencies throughout the past century. But overtime it turned into a culture of antagonism, an obsession with foreign aid, and a one-sided love story, which usually ended up with disappointment for the Kurds.
Prior to the independence referendum, the KRG sent numerous delegations to the White House imploring US support and spending millions of dollars lobbying in Washington. None of these efforts could persuade Americans to back the Kurds' independence endeavor.
Meanwhile, KRG leaders overlooked the significance of their neighbors' opinion about an independent Kurdistan. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan complained multiple times that then-president Masoud Barzani never consulted with him about his intention to hold a referendum on independence.
It is time for the KRG to make a radical transformation in its foreign policy from an idealist one that has regarded the US as its number one partner to a realistic one in which the landlocked region sees a neighboring country as an indispensable ally. Maintaining good relations with the United States is undoubtedly good for the KRG, but alliance with one of its neighboring countries, possibly Turkey, is more rewarding.
Despite all of its shortcomings, Turkey remains the ideal option without which the Kurdistan Region cannot possibly thrive. Between 2011 and 2017, the KRG and Turkey maintained excellent political and economic ties, which arguably played a key role in the economic boom the Kurdistan Region enjoyed during that period.
The Kurds should know that geography matters. The US could every now and then come to Kurds' rescue if they are faced with a genocidal threat, but the only way to guarantee a prosperous future is for the KRG to immediately remedy its relationship with Turkey. In other words, the KRG should focus more on restoring its relations with Ankara than putting all of its eggs in the US basket.
For now Turkey is busy with campaigning for snap elections scheduled to be held next month. President Erdogan's tactical alliance with Turkish nationalists to win the presidency may have made conditions for talks with the KRG unsuitable, but there is no real reason why a pragmatic Erdogan would not change after the vote.