The Kurds are the largest stateless people in the world. Their population exists in a contiguous territory spanning across present-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Historically, the Kurds have been an oppressed people. Iran, Iraq, Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, and what’s left of ISIS in Syria and Iraq are all deeply and viscerally opposed to the idea of a Kurdish state. An independent Kurdistan would remove large swathes of territory from each of those countries.
For the most part, the Kurds—particularly those living in northern Iraq—are stridently pro-American. The fear among the other regional powers is that if Kurdish Iraq were to become an independent state, other Kurdish populations would demand independence, and would seek to be folded into that Kurdish state.
Further, the Iraqi Kurds,with their fearsome Peshmerga forces, as well as the Kurds in Syria and southern Turkey, are all well-trained and heavily armed. In fact, the recent fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has compelled the armed Kurdish factions to sally forth and take territories, such as the Iraqi city of Kirkuk (which the Peshmerga recently liberated from ISIS). Of course, the Iraqi government wants Kirkuk back, and are warring with the Kurds in order to regain control of that strategic city.
The tragedy in all of this is, aside from the Israelis, the Kurds have been America’s most steadfast ally in the region. Throughout history, the Kurds—notoriously and gruesomely—have been oppressed by the region’s powers. They were the constant targets of Saddam’s tyranny in Iraq; they waged a brutal war for their freedom in Turkey; in Syria they are the targets of ISIS and other Syrian “rebels” as well.
During Desert Storm, they answered former President George H.W. Bush’s calls to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Then, the elder Bush undercut their uprising by signing an armistice with Iraq, and abandoning the Kurds to their fate. They were slaughtered. And yet the Kurds never once blamed Bush for abandoning them.
During President Bill Clinton’s administration, the United States led a multinational force to maintain a no-fly zone that prevented Hussein from committing any further acts of genocide against the Iraqi Kurdish population. As a result, the Kurds established something like a quasi-independent state.
When George W. Bush in 2003 led the United States into a quixotic campaign to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein, the Kurds joined the cause even though they understood the grave risks. After Saddam was out of power and the U.S.-led occupation struggled to prevent Iraq from splitting into three states——one for the Sunnis, one for the Shiites, and the other for the Kurds—it was the Kurds who respected Iraq’s national integrity.
What did they get for their troubles?
An Iranian-dominated government in Baghdad that took out its frustration on the Kurds!
When the war against ISIS began in earnest a few short years ago, the Kurds led the fight on the ground, even as Barack Obama’s feckless administration dithered over strategy and support. Now, the Iraqi Kurds want freedom. What’s more, they deserve freedom for their continued friendship with the United States.
Today, after doing our bidding for years, the Kurds in Kirkuk find themselves under assault from Iranian-controlled Iraqi government forces, with the Turks cheering the Iraqi regime on. All but the Kurds are using advanced American weapons. Meanwhile, sorry to say, President Donald Trump dithers, too.
In fact, when it came time for gaining international support for a referendum on Kurdish independence, President Trump shocked our Kurdish allies when he refused to back the move. This runs counter to the natural tilt of American foreign policy going back decades. It also signals to our allies that America is undependable and indecisive—in ways that, as it happens, help to explain why the Saudis and the Israelis have been so keen to welcome the Russians into the region. Moreover, the refusal to back Kurdish independence places President Trump on the same side as the Iranians, the very country that he claims is America’s greatest rival in the region. So, when it comes to fighting ISIS, Trump has been magnificent. But he’s left our Kurdish allies outnumbered and outgunned.
Failure to recognize Kurdistan is not only an abdication of moral leadership, it is a geostrategic error for the United States. Without Kurdistan as a buffer state between Iran’s expansion into the Levant, as well as a check against Turkish and Russian consolidation of the region’s energy sources, we will permanently lose the region to our adversaries. Backing the Kurds to the fullest is in America’s best interest.