America and the Kurds
Much of the outrage and frustration for the U.S. withdrawal from Syria focused on America’s long-standing relationship with the Kurds, without differentiating between Kurdish groups. While America’s relations with Syria’s Kurds are in flux, as a matter of foreign policy, America should increase its support for the Kurds of Iraq, a clear and reliable long-term partner in this historically contested region.
The Kurds, an ethnic group living on the borderlands between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, have figured prominently in American strategy in the Middle East for three decades. The 1990 Gulf war focused mainly on rolling back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. It also led America to impose a no-fly zone on oil-rich northern Iraq. This drove the Kurds to set up their own autonomous government structure, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This “regional framework” grew stronger following America’s invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein. As a second order effect, the KRG became the most stable, reliable, and U.S.-friendly part of the country.
While two rival factions have competed for power in the KRG, the 2005 Iraqi constitution recognized the region’s laws and autonomous government. This paved the way for the region, while remaining part of federal Iraq, to establish relations with foreign governments, including attracting foreign investment and developing its energy resources.
By contrast, the main force purporting to represent the Kurds of Turkey has been the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist-Leninist organization that both America and the E.U. consider a terrorist group. The PKK has routinely targeted civilians during its decades-long struggle against the Turkish government. This highlights one of the challenges with America's Syria policy because the Syrian Kurds are loosely acknowledged to be an extension of the PKK. The United States military partnership with a group affiliated alongside terrorist linked organizations remains politically tenuous.
NATO ally Turkey did not and does not see the fight against Islamic State as a priority. Appearances are that Ankara is more concerned with the Kurdish challenge and its ill-conceived efforts to topple the Assad regime and install a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Damascus.
Still, there is no love lost between the KRG and PKK: the Iraqi Kurds loathe the PKK, whose Leninist ideology they fear, and have repeatedly sought to prevent the PKK from using its territory to stage attacks against Turkey. One of the authors’ (LTG(R) Bednarek) experiences and recurring discussions with our Kurdish / Peshmerga warrior partners between 2013-2015 bear this out. In fact, the U.S. has acknowledged that back in 2017, it contributed to helping rebrand the Syrian Kurds into the "Syrian Democratic Forces" to make America's partnership with them more in line with the U.S. led coalition against ISIS. But the idea that America could build its Syria policy on this group after Islamic State was nearly defeated was incorrect.
Going forward, the United States must take stock of how its relationships with Kurdish factions relates to its key regional priorities. The first priority must be to roll back Iranian expansionism in the region while reinforcing America’s presence and assistance in Iraq and boost Israel’s security. This also means upping the game in Iraq to counter Iran’s pervasive influence. America maintains a small, but formidable military presence in Iraq and enjoys strong ties with the KRG. But America is not alone. Both Russia and Iran have worked hard to establish themselves in northern Iraq.
Russian energy companies have invested heavily in northern Iraq, providing the KRG with much-needed cash to stay afloat. Moscow even helped the KRG relieve $1 billion of debt, an indication of its willingness to step into the void left by the United States.
As for Iran, General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds force, has been a frequent visitor to the KRG. Iran made its influence clear when it urged the Kurds to withdraw from Kirkuk, a disputed northern Iraqi city and endorsed an offensive by Iraqi forces and pro-Iranian militias on the city. Kurdish politicians have learned that they cross Iran at their own peril.
By 2017, KRG leader Masoud Barzani, a legendary Peshmerga fighter, had already threatened to re-evaluate his reliance with Washington and move closer to Moscow and Tehran. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from northern Syria has put in question America’s credibility, its trust as a reliable partner, and its foreign policy in a region fraught with tension.
If America wants to bolster its influence in the Middle East, a good place to solidify our position is through our U.S. consulate in Erbil, the capital of the KRG, and obviously our U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Unlike the SDF, Turkey cannot and will not object to America's ties to the KRG, as it has close ties with the KRG itself.
America already spends millions of dollars in military support to the KRG, and for years American diplomacy has been key in mending fences between the KRG and Baghdad. However, this region is also at the crossroads of Turkish, Iranian and Russian interests. America could quickly lose its vital strategic position and leverage in the region unless it strengthens its relationship with Iraq’s Kurds.
LTG John “Mick” Bednarek, USA (ret.), is former Senior Defense Official in Iraq, and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy.