For Kurds, Trump’s ban is a slap in the face
London - An enterprising restaurant owner in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Dohuk earned free advertising before the turn of the year when he named his new outlet Trump Fish.
In January, the operator of a modest falafel establishment in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane followed suit with the opening of the Trump Restaurant. Add the report of a peshmerga naming his first-born Trump and it was beginning to look like a trend.
It is one that may prove short-lived, however, after the US president announced his travel ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim states.
The ban, still facing challenges in the US courts, made no distinction between Arab or Kurd, friend or foe. US President Donald Trump appeared to be saying that, as far as he was concerned, they were all potential terrorists.
The move has been denounced around the world. It may be a factor in denying Trump a promised state visit to Britain. The biggest backlash has not unnaturally come from the countries affected, including Iraq, fuelling an underlying suspicion of the United States long fostered by its past policies.
Among the Kurds, however, the slap in the face delivered by the White House was particularly stinging. In both Iraq and more recently in Syria, Kurds have revelled in their reputation of being the most effective local allies in the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS).
The Kobane falafel seller said he chose Trump’s name for his restaurant as a gesture of gratitude as a Kurd for US support in fighting the terror group. American air strikes helped prevent ISIS overrunning the Syrian-Turkish border town in 2014 and have helped keep it safe since.
The Kurds were perhaps hoping that a more muscular president would do more to help them than the cautious and reflective Barack Obama.
Speaking hours before Trump was sworn-in, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani told the World Economic Forum in Switzerland: “We expect that the new administration would provide more support to combat terrorism compared to the previous one but we have to wait because the inauguration hasn’t taken place yet.”
During an abrasive, scattergun campaign, Trump said at one point he was a “big fan of the Kurds” but he also expressed some admiration for Saddam Hussein because he “killed terrorists”.
Barzani could no doubt have pointed out the contradiction but, for the time being, the Kurdish leader’s wait-and-see policy is probably best.
Barzani is right to be cautious. His Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has been the United States’ most dependable ally in Iraq since 1991, when Kurdish guerrillas took control of large sections of northern Iraq from Saddam’s retreating army, only to be left in the lurch by President George H.W. Bush when the army marched back in.
Only a belated Western decision to establish no-fly zones spared the Kurdish movement from annihilation.
Bush’s initial failure to support the Kurdish insurgency was an unhappy reminder of the events of 1975 when the United States abandoned the Kurds in favour of a rapprochement between Iraq and Iran, driving Barzani’s father, Mullah Mustafa, into exile.
If Trump turns out to be an unreliable American ally, he will not be the first.
The KDP has had to juggle its US alliance with its regional ties to Turkey and Iran and with its Tehran-oriented rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Since the end of 2016 the KDP and PUK have been engaged in their latest attempt to sink their differences and end a political stalemate in the Kurdistan region.
Iran, engaged in its own war of words with the new US administration, may have even less interest than usual in seeing the emergence of a united, US-allied Kurdish front in northern Iraq.
Despite concerns about Trump’s unpredictability on foreign affairs, there is unlikely to soon be any watering down of the US commitment. Who can doubt that Trump will seize the credit when Mosul is eventually liberated.
Further forward, the Kurds have justified concerns about a president whose slogan is “America First”.
The autonomous zones that Kurds, led by the Democratic Union Party, have carved out in northern Syria depend, however indirectly, on a US policy of shrinking ISIS while supporting the political opposition.
Any shift by Trump towards Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad could see a settlement that would put Kurdish interests way down Washington’s list of priorities.
In the KRG region, the Kurds are dependent on the United States not only maintaining or increasing its current level of military commitment but also being there in the aftermath to help Erbil and Baghdad put the liberated territories together again. Will an isolationist Trump find the inclination or the money for that?