Recent tensions between the United States and Turkey over US support for the Syrian Kurds have brought to the forefront the issue of US policy toward the Kurdish people. Spread mostly over four countries (Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria), the Kurds represent the largest ethnic group in the world without its own independent state—though in Iraq, and now in Syria, they have established broad autonomy. The United States has backed these particular autonomous areas because of strong support and assistance it has received from Kurdish communities as US forces face threats to American interests.
However, there seems to be no coherent or consistent overall US policy toward the Kurds, as Washington has tended to treat each of the Kurdish communities in the context of US policies toward the individual states where they live. Indeed, none of these states have been willing to grant the Kurds autonomy, let alone independence—with the possible exception of Iraq, which has had an autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) since the early 1990s. But even in Iraq, there now is a test of wills between the Iraqi central government and the KRG, and the United States finds itself in the difficult position of balancing its interests between them.
The major flashpoint now is in the Kurdish regions of Syria, where there are threats and counter-threats by Turkey and the United States over Syrian Kurdish fighters. Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has tried to smooth relations with Turkey with his recent trip to Ankara, it is not clear whether US military support for Syrian Kurds will actually change, thus keeping Washington as the de-facto protector of these Kurds—at least for the time being—and contributing to Syria’s continuing fragmentation.
A Checkered History with the United States
The Kurds have had the misfortune of seeing their traditional homeland split between four countries since the early 1920s as an outcome of post-WWI settlements. Historically, their social structure has been largely tribal, and tribal rivalries have been a source of disunity that has allowed state actors to play off various Kurdish groups against one another. Nonetheless, over the course of the 20th century, a Kurdish intelligentsia has developed in each of these countries that has articulated a sense of Kurdish nationalism, putting these communities at odds with the nationalisms of the dominant group in each state. Discrimination and repression of Kurdish cultural rights have also contributed to such conflicts. Although the dream of Kurdish nationalists is an independent state, many, if not most Kurds, would probably settle for increased rights and/or autonomy.
Over the years, many US diplomats and officials have been personally sympathetic toward the Kurds, admiring their military prowess and willingness to defend their culture and homes. More often than not, however, these same US officials have put aside their personal feelings for the larger goal of pursuing US strategic objectives in the region by working with state leaders and governments that have been hostile to Kurdish nationalism. A prime example was in the immediate post-World War II period in Iran when US officials, though sympathetic toward the Kurds, worked to bolster the armed forces of the shah and encourage him to crack down on Soviet-supported groups and entities, such as the Kurdish “Republic of Mahabad” that had formed in a small section of northwestern Iran in 1946. This entity lasted only a year until it was crushed by Iranian troops.
At other times, when the United States had troubles with a particular state in the Middle East, it used the Kurds as a lever. An example was in the mid-1970s when the United States aimed to check the pro-Soviet Baath regime in Iraq. Encouraged by the shah of Iran, who long had border disputes with Iraq, the United States and Israel (which opposed the Iraqi regime for its strident anti-Israel positions), along with Iran, sent intelligence teams and weapons to Iraqi Kurds to assist them in their rebellion against Baghdad. However, when the shah decided it was more beneficial to strike a deal with Iraq’s Baathist leaders on border issues, he did so in 1975, leaving the Iraqi Kurds high and dry. The United States and Israel, not wanting to go against the shah, followed suit, allowing the Iraqi Army to put down the rebellion. This episode left the Kurds embittered toward the United States and its allies and reinforced the old Kurdish saying that the Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.”
Another controversial episode occurred in the immediate aftermath of the 1990-1991 Gulf war, when President George H. W. Bush encouraged both the Shia of southern Iraq and the Kurds of the north to rebel against Saddam Hussein’s regime. The problem for both groups was that they took these words seriously without receiving assurances that Washington would come to their aid. The groups were no match for Saddam Hussein’s remaining military forces, which crushed both rebellions in a brutal fashion. In northern Iraq, a great humanitarian crisis then ensued as tens of thousands of Kurds were compelled to flee their homes, trek over the mountains, and seek refuge in Turkey and Iran.
This episode was an embarrassment to the George H. W. Bush Administration, which soon established a “no-fly zone” in northern Iraq to enable the Kurds to return to their homes where they, with US support, soon established a Kurdish Regional Government that was free of Iraqi central government control. Since then, Washington has been the KRG’s main protector, and the US military has aided the KRG’s military force, called the peshmerga, with arms and training. (A no-fly zone was also established in southern Iraq to prevent attacks on Shia areas of the country.)
US support for Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, however, did not extend to other Kurds living in neighboring countries. The principle of territorial sovereignty was paramount; therefore, what happened within the borders of Iran, Syria, and Turkey was generally not a US concern, even though Turkey’s campaign against its own Kurdish insurgency in the southeastern part of the country often employed brutal tactics that were condemned by international human rights groups. After the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, there was a brief period when some Iranian Kurds also revolted against the central government, but this effort was also repressed harshly by the new Iranian authorities. As for Syria, the Kurdish issue was largely underground and dormant until 2004, when demonstrations occurred in some eastern Syrian cities, like Qamishli, which were put down by the Assad government. For Washington, other issues impacting bilateral relations with these states, like the potential for an Israeli-Syrian peace deal, were far more important than the fate of the Kurdish minorities.
Post-2003 Iraq and Relations with the KRG
Much to the dismay of Iraqi nationalists, the new post-2003 Iraq further entrenched the Kurds’ autonomy and their KRG mini-state in the north. Iraq’s Kurds seemed to have a dual policy: to participate in Iraqi politics, often in league with Iraqi Shia, while consolidating their position in the north. This gave Kurds the advantage, in 2005, of serving with the Shia as principal drafters of the Iraqi constitution, and they used that position to ensure the survival of their autonomous region. US policy supported both the Iraqi central government—dominated by the Shia—and the KRG. These two entities were seen as allies against the Iraqi insurgency that was dominated by Arab Sunnis, who felt disenfranchised in the new Iraq.
The Shia-Kurdish alliance began to fray, however, during Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure and continued sporadically during that of his successor, Haider al-Abadi, especially over the status and fate of Kirkuk following the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in that area. But events took their worst turn after the KRG’s September 2017 referendum on independence from Iraq. The decision by Masoud Barzani, then KRG president, to hold the independence referendum not only within the traditional boundaries of the KRG but within Kirkuk and surrounding areas—against the advice of the international community (including the United States) and with strong objections from the central Iraqi government—was a grave miscalculation. Although the referendum passed overwhelmingly, the following month Prime Minister Abadi, feeling confident in the wake of the near defeat of IS, sent Iraqi Army troops northward and recaptured Kirkuk and the surrounding areas, including some major oil fields. Abadi was aided by Kurdish factions that were angry with Barzani’s leadership.
The clash between the Abadi government and the KRG put the United States in a quandary, leading President Donald Trump to say the United States was not taking sides but that “we don’t like the fact that they are clashing.” Although the violence between Baghdad and the KRG was short-lived, many of the issues remain unresolved. Abadi has forbidden international airlines to land in Irbil as well as international oil companies to sign any new contracts with the KRG, and he has threatened to review existing contracts. The two sides are also at loggerheads over the Khurmala oil field that produces 110,000 barrels a day and is within the jurisdiction of the KRG, but which the Abadi government says must be returned to the central government.
US officials, including the envoy to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, have called on Abadi to lift the ban on international flights into Irbil. They have also encouraged both sides to hold meetings to resolve their disputes, the latest of which was on the sidelines of the Munich security conference on February 16 between Abadi and KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. However, the Kurds have complained that Abadi is trying to diminish the importance of the KRG.
Interestingly, former Vice President Joe Biden also had a separate meeting with the Iraqi Kurds on February 17 while attending the same conference. Indicative of the sentiments of past US officials, Biden said: “I have an affection for the Kurds overall,” and characterized Nechirvan Barzani’s proposals to Baghdad as “very constructive suggestions.” However, despite US mediation, the disputes between the KRG and Baghdad may not be resolved until after the May 2018 Iraqi parliamentary elections, whose outcome will likely create new power dynamics between Irbil and Baghdad.
The Syrian Kurdish Conundrum
While serious, the Kurdish problems in Iraq seem to pale in comparison with the very complicated situation in Syria at present. The United States has indicated that it plans to stay in Syria with about 2,000 troops not only to protect the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up mostly of Kurdish and some Arab troops, but to be a player in the future of Syria and to check Iranian influence. At present, the SDF occupies much of northern and eastern Syria—generally lands east of the Euphrates River. US military commanders, like Lt. General Paul Funk of the anti-IS coalition in Manbij, Syria, have praised the Kurds’ fighting prowess and sacrifices in the campaign to defeat IS. In an interview with the New York Times on February 7, he stated: “When nobody else could do it they retook Raqqa [from IS]. I think that has earned them a seat at the table.” And in response to Turkish threats to the United States to desist from supporting the SDF, whose Kurdish fighters are mostly affiliated with the YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units, which Turkey considers a terrorist organization linked to the PKK), Funk warned: “[if] you hit us, we will respond aggressively. We will defend ourselves.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose forces are already engaged with the YPG in the Afrin area of northwestern Syria, responded by saying: “To those who say, ‘If they hit us, we will respond with force,’ it is clear that they have never experienced the Ottoman slap.”
This crisis between the United States and Turkey prompted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to travel to Ankara on February 15 to hold lengthy meetings with the Turkish foreign minister as well as with Erdoğan. Tillerson said afterward that the United States and Turkey would “act together” in Syria and would jointly patrol Manbij after the YPG forces leave the city. What Tillerson did not say was how or even whether the YPG forces were going to leave Manbij or deal with the future of the autonomous administrative region of eastern Syria that the Kurds have carved out for themselves (with strong opposition by Turkey)—called “Rojava,” meaning “west” in the Kurdish language, indicating the western region of historic Kurdistan.
Leaving US-Turkish tensions aside, Washington’s efforts to protect Rojava have raised concerns not only with the Assad government but also with the rebels fighting it, as neither has supported the Kurds—though the Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallem in September 2017 did suggest that autonomy for Syrian Kurds could be negotiable. Moreover, within the larger Arab region, countries like Egypt have often spoken about the need to keep Syria’s territorial integrity intact. Sensing the discomfort among Arabs about the US protective role regarding the Syrian Kurds, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov charged on February 17, at the Munich conference, that the United States seems to be “seeking to alienate a vast part of Syrian territory from the rest of the country in violation of Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They are forming quasi-local authorities in a bid to establish a Kurd-based autonomy there.” Lavrov added that by playing “the Kurdish card” the United States may be creating “big problems in a number of other countries with Kurdish populations, which are facing the Kurdish problem.” In this message, Lavrov was tapping into the suspicions of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and even Iraq about US motives.
In addition to the moral issue of leaving the Kurds of eastern Syria to the mercy of the Turkish army, Washington also seems unwilling to withdraw from this area as this would reduce its ability to carry out its other objectives: to prevent a land corridor from developing from Iran through Iraq and into Syria, and to be a player in the future political outcome of Syria. But in doing so, the United States emboldens the Syrian Kurds to keep Syria fractured and runs the risk of alienating not only other Syrians but much of the Arab world, which also encompasses countries that have no Kurdish populations.
Recommendations for US Policy
Within the Arab context, the United States needs to be clear about its positions regarding the Kurds, saying explicitly that Kurdish independence within Iraq and Syria is not in the US national security interest. Although some Kurdish nationalists will object, it appears that a majority of Kurds in both countries would be content with the preservation of their autonomous entities, as they understand that to press for actual independence would be a bridge too far and would likely propel Turkey to intervene even further in Syria, and perhaps cause Iran to intervene in northern Iraq. Moreover, Kurdish independence would weaken Iraq and Syria, as both states would be truncated, and it would feed conspiracies in the Arab world about American ill intentions toward the broader Arab region.
US policymakers would do well instead to support a kind of loose federalism in Iraq and Syria that preserves the territorial integrity of the Iraqi and Syrian states while recognizing realities on the ground. For this to work, there must be serious and meaningful discussions—perhaps after the May elections—between the Iraqi central government and the KRG about outstanding issues like oil, sharing of state revenues, and border patrols. In Syria, such discussions may have to wait until a political settlement for the entire country is reached, but it is not inconceivable that, like in Iraq, there could be discussions on border patrols, oil, and revenue sharing in a way that also preserves Kurdish autonomy and Syrian territorial integrity. Hence, sympathy for the Kurds and their plight need not be in contradiction with larger US national security goals.