Kurdish gains could create US policy dilemma

Friday 31/07/2015
A female fighter from the Kurdish People Protection Unit (YPG) in the Syrian province of al-Hasakah.

Washington - An increasing number of US congressmen are taking positions in fa­vour of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria because they see them as the most pro-American forces in both countries.

However, while US administra­tion officials acknowledge the ef­fectiveness of the Kurds as fight­ers against the Islamic State (ISIS) and are coordinating air strikes with their forces, they are reluc­tant to support Kurdish national aspirations. Doing so would run up against US policy goals of support­ing the unity and “territorial integ­rity” of other states.

But as Kurds make gains militar­ily and become stronger politically, US officials will eventually have to reassess their position to reflect re­alities on the ground.

In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war, the Kurds of northern Iraq es­tablished an autonomous area with the support of a US-imposed no-fly zone that prevented Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces from re­turning to the area. This enabled the Kurds to form their own region­al government, protected in part by their peshmerga militia forces.

The 2003 Iraq war emboldened the Kurds even further. Although the Kurds have been prominent members of the post-2003 Iraqi governments, they have simulta­neously consolidated their politi­cal, economic and military posi­tions in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

When ISIS went on the offensive in Iraq in the summer of 2014, it was the peshmerga (after initial setbacks) and Shia militias of the south, not the Iraqi regular army, that prevented Iraq from being totally overwhelmed. The Iraqi Kurds took advantage of the situa­tion to control Kirkuk, just outside the KRG, which has a mixed Kurdish-Arab population and whose administration was to have been set­tled by a referendum. The pesh­merga have also taken the offen­sive against ISIS forces in parts of northern Iraq.

In Syria, Kurdish forces, led by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have resisted ISIS control of eastern Syria and carved out a slice of territory in eastern and northern Syria. The Syrian Kurds have set up a “democratic self-administration” that could set them on the path of virtual independence, as in north­ern Iraq. Kurdish flags now fly over government buildings in the area.

Several members of the US Con­gress are supporting Kurdish de­mands to supply the peshmerga with weapons to avoid going through the Iraqi central govern­ment in Baghdad, a traditional path that has led to delays. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced to this effect. Members of Congress say they see a dysfunctional Iraqi government and army and a prob­lematic Shia militia force (because of its links to Iran).

Hence, in their view, the Iraqi Kurds are a reliable and pro-Amer­ican group that should be support­ed.

The refrain from many mem­bers of Congress in recent years regarding the war in Syria was that there were “no good guys” in this fight, with the Assad re­gime on one side and the mainly Islamist opposi­tion that has included al- Nusra Front, allied with al-Qaeda, on the other. With the rise of ISIS and its success in establishing its brutal caliphate, some members of Congress have latched on to the Syrian Kurds as a group worthy of support. They also see the Syrian Kurds as the only group that is ef­fectively fighting ISIS in Syria.

Over the past couple of months, Syrian Kurdish leaders, Sherkoh Abbas, leader of Kurd­ish National Assembly of Syria (KUN­DAS), and Abdul Hakim Bashar, leader of the Kurdish National Council, met prominent members of Congress such as Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as well as Representative Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House For­eign Affairs Committee. After the meetings, Abbas said that McCain and Cruz support direct US mili­tary aid to the Syrian Kurdish and Iraqi peshmerga and even claimed that there was “strong bipartisan support for either federation or in­dependence for Syrian Kurdistan”.

The latter statement was proba­bly a stretch of the truth. Nonethe­less, the views of many members of Congress appear more in line with such Kurdish aspirations than what the Obama administration is thinking, which is still to support the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria, not wanting to alienate the moderate Syrian rebels (who do not support carving out land for the Kurds), or the Iraqi government.

Given the fact that the fight against ISIS is probably going to take several years, US policymakers do not have to deal with demands for Syrian Kurdish autonomy or in­dependence (and perhaps Iraqi Kurdish desires for independ­ence) immediately. Nonetheless, the issue is likely to come to a head and put the next US admin­istration in a difficult policy situ­ation.