Kurds have a saying, ‘no friends but the mountains.’ This stems from a sense of betrayal by the international community since the end of World War I and a promise that saw no traction in creating an independent state called Kurdistan. In the 21stcentury the Kurds once again fear they will be given the cold shoulder in Iraq and Syria, this time by the United States.
The US has developed a historical relationship with the Kurds in Iraq, following the first Gulf War. Under President George Bush, the US set up a no-fly zone which allowed the Kurds a space to govern themselves protecting them from Saddam Hussein. Soon after, in 1992 the Kurds established the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which set the stage for self-determination, from the Kurdish perspective at least. Fast forward to the 2003 Iraq War, the KRG became the most important and reliable ally of the US inside Iraq. Let’s not forget that not one American life was lost in the Kurdistan Region during the entirety of the war.
On September 25, 2017 the Kurdish government decided to make a unilateral decision and pushed forward a referendum calling for independence. As warned prior to holding the vote, the entire international community, and the US included took a hard stance against the Kurdish decision. Perhaps the Kurdish decision stemmed from the idea that the US and the rest of the world would finally reward them with a state after successfully disintegrating the Islamic State (IS) while the Iraqi army collapsed. But this hope was short lived and what followed was a disaster. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRCG) general Qassim Soleimani visited Sulaimania province to warn the Kurds against calling for independence. Iranian backed Shiite militias, specifically the Popular Mobilization force (PMU) overran Kurdish held oil rich Kirkuk, a disputed territory under the Iraqi constitution. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened military action. Iraqi Prime Minster Haidar Abadi warned of consequences, and he kept to his word.
With all this, in the eyes of the Kurdish regional government, the US was nowhere to be found. The Kurds found themselves isolated and alone.
In Syria, the Kurds in the northeast sense betrayal is looming, again from the United States. Prior to the rise of IS, the Kurds in Syria played a defensive role as Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad pounded his opponents. The Kurds neither took the side of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) (which today is fractured, unreliable and fighting Turkey’s war against the Kurds), or the Assad regime. The Kurds were simply protecting their historical territories in the north of the country. As IS rose and declared Raqqa to be its capital, the tides turned against the Kurds. IS saw all as its enemy, including the secular and “atheist” Kurds. Despite the push from the terror organization, the Kurds successfully organized fighters both men (People’s Protection Unit YPG) and women (Women’s Protection Unit YPJ). In alliance with the United States which later established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military force made up of the YPG, YPJ and Arab populations of north Syria. The SDF swiftly brought IS to its knees, liberated Raqqa and the rest of its territories east of the Euphrates River with less than 5% territory remaining.
Today there are about 2,200 US troops in northern Syria aligned with the SDF. The US plays many pivotal roles with its presence, which include but not limited to training and equipping the SDF, continue the fight against IS, prevent Russia, Iran and Assad forces from crossing the Euphrates river, help in reconstruction efforts in liberated areas and to patrol the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent Turkey from triggering a war against the Kurds, in what President Erdogan views as terrorists. However, President Donald Trump is adamant about withdrawing from Syria, a move if implemented, would be parallel to President Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011.
A hasty US withdrawal from Syria would leave a giant gap for Russia, Iran and Turkey to fill and would ultimately leave the Kurds abandoned forcing them to make amends with Assad. This would undermine all progress made by US forces with the SDF and would further legitimize Assad’s dictatorship over all of Syria. The withdrawal is unnecessary as the Americans are welcomed by Syrians east of the Euphrates.
In Iraq, the United States risks losing the Kurds to Russia and Iran following the independence referendum due to lack of reliable US backing. US presence in the Kurdistan Region is critical as Iraq finds itself deeper in Iranian regimes sphere of influence.
The Kurds have proven to be reliable, honest partners time and time again both on the battle field and in the political arena. It is long overdue for the United States to distance itself from the status quo policy of keeping failed states of Iraq and Syria intact. The US must implement a policy in the interest of our Kurdish partners so that we don’t lose them to the dangerous regimes in the unforgivable neighborhood that is the Middle East.
Originally published at Security Studies Group on July 23, 2018.