For two years U.S. forces have been working closely with Kurds in the war against the Islamic State. This cooperation began in northern Iraq with the peshmerga, the armed forces of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, and has been extended to include Americans fighting alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. In both places American forces have found eager allies and a welcoming public. However, Washington has been cautious to avoid appearing committed to Kurdish aspirations for independence, as it balances relations with Baghdad and Ankara. It is time to correct this historic error.
In April, the U.S. agreed to provide $415 million in financial assistance to the peshmerga. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter described it as “one of the most effective fighting forces against ISIS.” The financial assistance was formalized in July 2016 when Assistant Secretary of Defense Elissa Slotkin signed a memorandum of understanding with KRG president Massoud Barzani.
U.S. relations with the KRG have been predicated on encouraging Kurdish cooperation with the Iraqi army during the Mosul offensive. Brett McGurk, appointed in October 2015 as the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, has played a key role in this relationship. Last year he helped ink an oil agreement between Baghdad and the KRG capital in Erbil, aimed at shoring up Kurdistan’s economy. The Pentagon also set up a Kurdistan training-coordination center and three training bases in the Kurdish region. Six thousand peshmerga had trained there by August 2016, and the facilities continue to place peshmerga brigades in the field.
Now the Kurdish region is looking to the post-ISIS future. “The deal with federal Iraq has failed,” says KRG foreign minister Falah Mustafa Bakir, and “it is important that the right to self-determination is put on the table.” Kurds worry that the U.S. will fail to support Kurdish interests militarily over the long term, as it failed to do before as well as after the “surge.”
At the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2008, Lieutenant General Simon Mayall, the deputy commander of the multi-national corps in Iraq, spoke about jihad versus the surge. The Kurdish region was “a totally safe area,” he said. Coalition forces “never had a single casualty or security incident since 2003.” After giving details on some of the hundreds of attacks by Arab insurgents on coalition and Iraqi forces, Mayall added that one of the “concerns” in Iraq was “Kurdish intransigence.” He went on to assert that “they’ve got to have pressure on them to feel they are part of Iraq.”
This bizarre logic is symbolic of American policy. The safer and more stable the Kurdish region is and the more closely it works with Western governments, the more its demand for greater independence from the rest of the failed state of Iraq is seen as a problem. The more that Shia and Sunni Arab extremists oppose the U.S., the more resources it devotes to them, to encourage them to be “part of the solution.” America remains committed to the “unity” of Iraq and, despite decades of working with Kurds, is reluctant to fully support them.
In August 2014, after the Islamic State attacked the Kurds and the Yazidis, Peter Beinart argued in The Atlantic that fighting ISIS would mean closely allying with Kurds. “The Peshmerga are a disciplined fighting force with a political agenda that is more pro-American and more liberal than anyone else’s,” he wrote. “But by supporting them, the U.S. may hasten Kurdish independence and the dissolution of Iraq.”
Why are U.S. commentators and policymakers so committed to Iraq when many parties there, such as the one led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, despise the U.S. and often threaten U.S. interests there? It would be better for the U.S. to reverse its relationship with Erbil and Baghdad, working militarily with Baghdad against ISIS while forging closer political cooperation with Erbil. Kurdistan’s interests, such as confronting Iranian militia proxies, dovetail with Washington’s. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was involved in oil deals in the Kurdish region and knows well how important it is to the U.S.
American support is predicated entirely on fighting ISIS, and the U.S. is concerned about Turkey’s views.
The relationship between the Kurdish YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is more tenuous and covert. Since last year, the U.S. has been supplying light weapons to the SDF, alongside special-forces assistance. In briefings, U.S. officials have been cagey about where the assistance leads. Army general Joseph Votel, who has made trips to Syria to observe the cooperation, told reporters last year that he was confident “in their capabilities and our ability to support them. . . . I think that model is working.”
American support is predicated entirely on fighting ISIS, and the U.S. is concerned about Turkey’s views. Two weeks after being confirmed, CIA director Mike Pompeo visited Turkey. On February 28, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to attack the SDF in Manbij, Syria. He regards the Kurdish YPG as terrorists, insisting that “it is impossible that Turkey accepts the presence of armed terrorists along its borders.” The U.S. must balance its close partnership with Turkey and its work with Kurds in Syria, but that should not entail selling out the Kurds. Instead the U.S. should consider more-open political ties.
For years under Obama, Washington made a series of strange decisions to mend fences with regimes, such as Iran, that openly hate America. In Pakistan, ostensibly an American ally, polls show more than two-thirds consider the U.S. an “enemy.” Jordanians (85 percent) and Turks (73 percent) view the U.S. unfavorably, while anyone who has traveled in the Kurdish region will note the affection that the people there have for the U.S. Americans serving in Iraq have told me that Kurdistan is the region in which they felt safest and most welcome.
It’s time that the esteem be reciprocated. Increased military support would be a good start. But American officials also need to express support for Kurdish aspirations to self-determination and to stop regarding them as a problem. There is no Kurdish intransigence. Kurds simply want what other nations have: a right to decide their destiny. They want to be able to loosen their ties to Syria, Iraq, and Iran, states that have brutally oppressed them. American support for Kurds will reassure the region that the U.S. stands by its allies.