US Kurdish policy based on country-specific calculations
Despite the general sympathy many US officials have for the Kurdish people, Washington is pursuing unique policies towards each Kurdish community in the four Middle East countries the Kurds inhabit.
In the late 1940s, when US policymakers were deciding whether to support Kurdish autonomy in north-western Iran, Washington sided with the Iranian government, which ended the Kurds’ autonomous republic by military means. Cold War calculations trumped whatever sympathies US officials felt towards the Kurds. Iran’s territorial integrity was deemed more important than Kurdish nationalist aims.
Although the United States is opposed to the Iranian government, there is no evidence that Washington has been inciting Iran’s Kurds against Tehran, even though most Kurds are Sunni Muslims. Washington does not want another ethnic/sectarian headache, given the myriad of existing troubles in the region.
In Iraq, the United States has supported Kurdish autonomy since the early 1990s. After Saddam Hussein sent his forces into the north against the Kurds who had risen — with US encouragement — against his rule after the 1991 Gulf War and caused a major humanitarian crisis, Washington helped the Kurds return to their homes and establish an autonomous zone protected by US air power. This was the beginning of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which has been a US ally ever since.
After Saddam’s ouster, Washington supported the concept of a unified but federal Iraqi state that would allow the Kurds to maintain their autonomous government as well as their peshmerga militia, despite the highly contentious disagreements between the KRG and the central government in Baghdad.
When things came to a head in September and October after the Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence, which the United States opposed, Washington dithered. It found itself between two allies — the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the KRG, both partners in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Although the United States counselled restraint on both sides and urged them to settle their dispute peacefully, it did not protest when Abadi dispatched Iraqi forces to seize Kirkuk and adjacent areas. Nonetheless, the United States still supports the KRG, especially now that the Kurds have back-pedalled from their independence quest.
In Syria, US military officials and special forces have advised and worked closely with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish militia that proved to be the most effective fighting force against ISIS. The YPG joined Arab tribal forces under the umbrella of what became known as the Syrian Democratic Forces but the Kurdish component dominated that larger militia.
The United States supported YPG fighters even though that incurred the wrath of Turkey, which sees the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that both Turkey and the United States have designated as a terrorist group.
Turkey has clashed with YPG fighters in northern Syria and, in August, pro-Turkish Syrian rebels — made up of Arab and Turkmen fighters — initiated a clash with US forces in the area, prompting Washington to issue a demarche to Ankara.
Partly because of those tensions, Washington is playing it both ways. On the one hand, the Pentagon says it plans to keep some US forces in eastern Syria post-ISIS, which CNN has reported to number about 2,000, to help stabilise the situation on the ground and provide leverage against the Assad government and the Iranians as the Syrian conflict moves towards a political settlement. In addition, US troops in eastern Syria serve as a protective shield for the Syrian Kurds against both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Turkey.
On the other hand, US President Donald Trump reportedly assured Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call on November 24 that the United States would cease arming the YPG. Although this announcement took many US officials by surprise and did not specify a timeline, it apparently did not mean that the United States would try to disarm the YPG. It appears that Washington is trying to preserve its assets in Syria while seeking to mollify the Turks.
That the United States has no plans to take the PKK off the terrorism list and support Kurdish autonomy in Turkey may also be part of the US strategy to keep Ankara appeased. However, tensions and clashes with Turkey could soon erupt if the Syrian Kurds insist on a federal Syrian state in which they maintain their autonomy. In that situation, it is unclear whether Washington would stand by the Syrian Kurds, who are nervous about the budding Trump-Erdogan relationship.
There is thus a multitude of US policies towards the Kurds based on conditions, assets and crises in the four countries in which the Kurds live. Any hopes of the Kurds for a more coherent and uniform policy on the part of Washington that would satisfy their nationalist aspirations are likely to be disappointed.