We all know President Donald Trump isn’t a fan of the foreign-policy establishment, either in Washington or at the United Nations. To the contrary, he delights in confounding the experts and defying the international consensus on a variety of issues. Yet on one key matter, Trump seems to be adhering to the conventional wisdom. When it comes to independence for Kurdistan, Trump has been listening to the so-called wise men both inside and outside the government and has been clear that his administration opposes the referendum held there yesterday.
But in this case he should buck the consensus. He ought to signal that the United States will not go along with efforts to suppress the Kurds’ bid for freedom. Doing so would be not only the right thing to do for America’s sole reliable ally in the fight against ISIS, but also good strategy. Giving the Kurds a leg up toward their goal would provide Trump with something he has been looking for: leverage against Iran.
Trump put the world on notice last week, in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, that he was not prepared to follow the lead of America’s European allies on Iran. He made a strong case that the nuclear deal his predecessor struck with Tehran had been ineffective in achieving its goal of ending the threat of an Iranian weapon. Just as important, he pointed out that the pact had both enriched and emboldened Iran.
There is good reason to believe that the Iranians are already pushing the envelope on compliance with the agreement, which legitimized their nuclear program — and whose provisions will start to sunset within a decade, essentially allowing Iran to build a weapon with international approval. The deal also has encouraged Iran’s leaders to believe that the country’s illegal missile tests, continued status as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism (a designation that Obama’s State Department reaffirmed after the deal went into effect), and successful military adventure in Syria will go unchallenged by the West. With the help of the Russians, the Iranians have enabled the barbarous Assad regime to prevail in Syria’s civil war. That has given them what is, in effect, a land bridge to the Mediterranean stretching from an Iraq run by their Shiite allies to Lebanon, where their Hezbollah auxiliaries dominate.
Trump has struggled in vain to balance his desire to finish the campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq with his recognition of the danger that a triumphant Iran poses to the West and to Sunni Arab states eager to cooperate with the U.S. This question has exposed a terrible contradiction in his foreign policy: His desire to restrain Iran has collided with his hopes for better relations with Russia, which acts as Tehran’s ally in Syria.
Unfortunately, his urge to finish off ISIS has blinded him to the rights of the group that has done more than any other in the region to carry on that fight: the Kurds. While the Assad-Iran-Russia coalition in Syria has paid lip service to the war on ISIS, it has largely ignored the Islamic State in practice, concentrating instead on eliminating Assad’s other domestic foes. The Kurdish Peshmerga, the military force raised by Iraqi Kurdistan, has been the only reliable land force in the campaign against ISIS. Without the Kurds, U.S. efforts to rout ISIS would have continued to fail. And yet the same Western governments that have cheered the Kurds’ efforts are unprepared to countenance their desire for a state of their own.
Western indifference is a product of more than ingratitude. Though the U.S. regarded the Kurds as a friendly force throughout the war in Iraq, America was also heavily invested in maintaining the country’s unity, even if that concept was more of a legal fiction than a reality. Just as important, giving statehood to Iraq’s Kurds scares both Turkey and Iran, who both have substantial restive Kurdish minorities that have been subject to discrimination and repression.
Seen from that perspective, giving the Kurds their due might constitute not only a distraction from the war on ISIS but also a threat to Turkey, Iran, and the survival of the fragile Iraqi government in Baghdad.
But as Trump well understands, the boat sailed on Iraqi unity — and on any attempt to create a democratic federal system in Iraq — long ago. The Kurds know that if their rights are put on hold until after they’ve finished the dirty work of fighting ISIS, the world won’t lift a finger to ensure that any promises made to them will be kept. That’s why, in spite of condemnations from those neighboring governments and even discouragement from the United Nations — which is so solicitous about achieving statehood for Palestinians who support rather than fight terrorism — the Kurds have gone ahead and held their referendum.
Standing up for the Kurds is in America’s strategic interest.
Rather than providing support for the worrisome threats coming from the Turks, the Iranians, and the government in Baghdad, the U.S. ought to be signaling that this time, unlike numerous times in the past, the Kurds won’t be left to their fate. Supporting the Kurds, who have bled and died in a battle against terror the U.S. wanted fought but was too squeamish and war-weary to commit major land forces of its own to, is the right thing to do. And contrary to all of those wise men whispering in Trump’s ear that he can’t do anything to offend the Turks and Iranians, standing up for the Kurds is also in America’s strategic interest.
Though an independent Kurdistan in what is now northern Iraq won’t block Iran’s land bridge to Hezbollah, the presence of a strong armed force on Iran’s flank would provide the U.S. with the sort of strategic leverage against Iran for which Trump has been looking. Moreover, given the strength of the Peshmerga, the Kurds can defend themselves so long as the U.S. is prepared to honor its word to arm them.
Though the new state will fall short of a Jeffersonian democracy, it will still be freer than its neighbors. Like democratic Israel elsewhere in the region, Kurdistan will act as a bridgehead for the West in an area where dangerous forces have seized the initiative since Obama’s retreat from his “red line” in Syria and his nuclear deal with Iran.
As for the increasingly dictatorial state in Turkey, it’s time for Trump to send the Erdogan regime a message that he cannot dictate U.S. policy, and that the U.S. will not legitimize his ill treatment of Turkish Kurds by denying freedom to their coethnics in northern Iraq.
Backing the Kurds is exactly the sort of outside-the-box thinking that Trump promised when he was elected president. If he abandons the Kurds, just at the moment when they are most entitled to Western support, it won’t merely be another in a long history of betrayals of that people. It will be a sign that Trump lacks the insight and the courage to ignore his establishment advisers, and that his talk about rolling back Obama’s dangerous nuclear blunder with Iran is just posturing. That would be a greater danger to both his administration and U.S. interests than the displeasure of Erdogan or the ayatollahs could ever be.