If America Betrays the Kurds, Where Will We Ever Find Allies?
America’s flip-flop, and withdrawal of support for the aspirations of Kurds in Iraq, is a serious blunder. In fact, the American approach toward that tragic country has been both callous and foolish — in various ways, via many hands — since 2003, if not before.
Did it really never occur to Washington policy-makers that
- by smashing Iran’s most powerful rival, Iraq, they might hand the Islamic Republic dominance in the region?
- establishing a tolerant, centralized, pluralist American-style democracy in the ruins of the Ba’athist dictatorship might prove difficult?
- we might fail?
Did we wonder whether by denouncing secular Arab dictatorships from Tunisia to Libya to Syria in a rare fit of idealism, America would only empower bitter, intolerant Islamists? How about the issue of millions of religious minorities? Did we ever give serious thought to their fate when we set about breaking nations?
Teenagers playing chess think more moves ahead than we did. And our folly marches on.
Our Only Real Ally: The Kurds
A long series of blunders and betrayals, of delusional promises followed by cynical retreats, left the U.S. with only one real ally in the region (apart from Israel): the Kurds. Their hopes frustrated by every other major player, the Kurds had every reason to seek out a U.S. alliance.
And we have no other natural allies on the ground either. Not the Shi’ite-dominated Baghdad government. Nor its Iranian/Syrian (and even Russian) allies. Certainly not the jihadi militias that saw ISIS not so much as enemies in principle but rivals for power. Not the Islamist bullies in Ankara or Riyadh.
We are an offshore power seeking a local client. The Kurds are a lonely client seeking a sponsor. What is more, their cause is just. The Kurdish nation has more of a claim to exist than Saudi Arabia. Or the mismatched pseudo-nations that Sykes-Picot imposed upon the world.
And indeed, in Syria U.S. and Kurdish interests dovetailed very well, and still seem to. The Kurds have created in the Federation of Northern Syria the most decent, humane regime in the region. It’s decentralized, democratic, and religiously tolerant. It keeps all the promises that the U.S. once made for a “new Iraq.” Its Syriac Christians have wisely managed to stay mostly unified. They’ve fought alongside both Kurdish and Sunni Arab units, defeating ISIS. They are far better off than those Christians who felt compelled to side with Assad’s tenacious, dead-end regime.
The Kurds have created in the Federation of Northern Syria the most decent, humane regime in the region. It’s decentralized, democratic, and religiously tolerant. It keeps all the promises that the U.S. once made for a “new Iraq.”
In Iraq, Kurds Divided and Christians Confused
In Iraq, by contrast, the Kurds are deeply divided. The Kurds have been their only reliable protectors in recent years, but the local Christians are hostile. They’re haunted perhaps by memories of Kurds in 1919 who aided the Turkish genocide.
Even more, these Christians seem obsessed with nostalgic or petty micro-agendas. These split such tiny, powerless communities. They’re thrown into perverse alliance with Iranian-backed militias and the Iraqi government that relies on them.
Now the Baghdad government and its Iranian allies are using U.S. equipment and weapons. How? To attack Kurdish units embedded in the historically Christian region of the Nineveh Plain. A media operation is being whipped up to blame the Kurds for defending themselves. These are the same Kurds who were the only force protecting local Christians from ISIS. That was after the Iraqi army threw down its weapons and ran away.
The Kurds are Sunni Muslims who seem mostly immune to Wahhabist extremism. Ignore the Turkish propaganda to the contrary. They are not terrorists but soldiers, who fight other soldiers with honor. Peshmerga have been the closest thing to a pro-Western force in the region.
You Read It Here: John McCain Was Right
Senator John McCain, with whom I’ve had many differences in the past, is wise on this. He wrote in The New York Times:
If Baghdad cannot guarantee the Kurdish people in Iraq the security, freedom and opportunities they desire, and if the United States is forced to choose between Iranian-backed militias and our longstanding Kurdish partners, I choose the Kurds.
I have traveled with Kurdish peshmerga units. Fighters who crushed the forces of ISIS. Who saved the lives of the most vulnerable minorities in the region, Christians and Yezidis. The Kurds combine a ferocious tenacity with a fundamental decency. Those are two qualities I traditionally associate with Americans. Sadly, both have been lacking from our Iraq policy for at least the past 15 years.
This column will appear in German in the Swiss newspaper Weltwoche, and in the Kurdish news site Rudaw’s Kurdish and Arabic editions.