IRBIL, Iraq — When militants tried to storm the secret police headquarters in the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, detonating car bombs and firing on guards, the city was locked down, all roads to it were closed, and three provinces were put on high alert. Unlike bomb-plagued Baghdad to the south, this region is unaccustomed to violence and they want to keep it that way.

Irbil is the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish-majority region, known as Kurdistan. With a booming economy, relative peace and a government that’s more democratic than most in the Middle East, it stands out as one of the few clear U.S. military successes of the past decade. It also borders one of America’s foreign policy conundrums — Syria.

Despite major differences between Kurdistan’s situation in the early 1990s and war-ravaged Syria today, some see lessons in Iraqi Kurdistan for the U.S. and other Western nations as they puzzle over what to do about a Syrian civil war that has cost more than 100,000 lives.

“If you’re an American strategist, the Kurds of Iraq are America’s only reliable allies in the area,” said Brendan O’Leary, Lauder professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a former constitutional adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

“The Other Iraq,” as residents like to call it, has enjoyed peace, stability and an improving economy for more than 20 years, since the U.S. instituted a no-fly zone over the region following the first Gulf War in 1991. Protected from Saddam Hussein by the no-fly zone, Iraqi Kurds developed a modern infrastructure and a rare secular, pro-Western, democratic regime.

“It led to huge progress for our economy,” said Dara Jalil-Khayat, president of the Irbil Chamber of Commerce.

Today the region boasts sparkling malls, U.S. fast-food chains, hip coffee shops and, more importantly, a population with money to spend in those places.

That those results came with virtually no U.S. presence on the ground — in stark contrast to the military quagmires in Afghanistan and the rest of Iraq — should be instructive, O’Leary said.

“U.S. power is least effective when it’s exercised in the form of direct rule, U.S. administration or U.S. troops on the ground,” he said. “The best policy is to build careful alliances, where you support emerging democratic movements.”

Earlier in the Syrian civil war, some foreign policy experts were calling for a no-fly zone similar to that imposed in northern Iraq. That has been overshadowed by a deal to secure the Syrian government’s chemical weapons in the wake of a deadly sarin gas attack near Syria’s capital of Damascus.

While it never gained traction among Western governments, a no-fly zone had the potential to establish a moderate rebel-controlled zone in northern Syria, now a bitter battleground between Kurdish fighters and Islamist rebels, said Lionel Beehner, who has worked as a researcher and journalist in Syria.

“In my estimation that would have saved a lot of lives,” said Beehner, who is pursuing a doctorate at Yale University with a focus on conflict. “I think that window is shut.”

In Syria, rebels fighting the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad have struggled to gain support among the country’s minorities, especially with the growing domination of al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in their ranks. Christians, Alawites and Kurds fear a secular tyranny could be replaced by a jihadist one, and rebel groups have failed to promise minorities protection, O’Learly said.

Looking to Iraq, where Kurds were given autonomy rather than being forced to live under a strong central government and integrate with the ethnically different Arab populations, O’Learly said it was important for the West to encourage rebels to make alliances with minorities by guaranteeing their rights. He also noted the need to “avoid foolish American political and constitutional advice that involves telling people who are deeply ethnically and religiously divided to get along.”

“The U.S. has got itself in the absurd position where its main allies are Sunni Arab Islamists,” O’Leary said. “That’s partly due to the weakness of the so-called democratic opposition (in Syria). If America is smart, they will be pressuring that opposition to make deep commitments to the Kurds.”

While the rest of Iraq is devolving into sectarian violence, the Kurdish provinces are booming with increasing foreign investment, especially in the oil sector. It’s not a complicated business formula: until Sept. 29, there hadn’t been a major terrorist attack in the three-province region since 2008. The rest of Iraq is a frightening place to do business, with dozens of civilians killed in depressingly frequent bombings.

The biggest sign of Kurdistan’s security and development might be the shrugs you get when you ask Iraqi Kurds how things have changed since U.S. forces left Iraq at the end of 2011. A momentous and ominous event for most Iraqis, it was barely noticed in Kurdistan, where only a handful of Americans were stationed during the war.

Not that Iraqi Kurds downplay the role of the U.S. military in their development — Americans are warmly received and signs of U.S. influence are everywhere. “If the no-fly zone didn’t exist, if the attack on Saddam hadn’t happened,” said Hamid Ahmad, an adviser to Iraqi Kurdistan regional president, Masoud Barzani, “we wouldn’t have what we have now.” Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now