US Approach to Role of Kurds in Syria, Iraq

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Mohammad Ali Dastmali
Expert on Turkey Affairs

A lot of Kurdish politicians in Iraq, Turkey and Syria, who belong to various political groups, even the opposition, have noted during the past few years that the 21st century is a time for Kurds to shine in the political equations of the Middle East and the world. What does this exaggerated expression and opinion imply? Why Kurdish leaders believe that the new century has provided Kurds with an opportunity to make up for the defeat they suffered as a consequence of the Treaty of Lausanne, which was signed in 1923? What potential do the Kurds possess and in what regional and international position they are to be able to emerge as a “determining” or “effective” factor in the existing equations?

To answer these questions one may say that, basically speaking, such remarks made by leaders of the Kurdish parties are just continuation of the epic and sloganeering literature of these parties and in line with classic ideals of the Kurdish leaders during the 20th century, which was a prime time for having nationalistic ideas about establishment of an independent Kurdish state and dreaming of a “united and integrated Kurdistan.” And this is the same idea, which is currently being renounced by a large number of realistic Kurdish leaders and parties. Of course, some Kurdish leaders, including President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani, insist on the necessity of establishing an independent Kurdish state in Iraq. However, even this Kurdish leader, which can be considered as the most prominent vanguard of the Kurdish nationalism, is realistic enough to show time and time again in his remarks that he is not willing to discuss the necessity of establishing a united Kurdistan, and has also announced that issues of Kurds living in other countries are their own concern.

An important factor that has affected political behavior of Kurds in Iraq and Syria and plays an important part in their different activities is the approach taken by the United States to the role of Kurds in these countries. Since the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the beginning of the important historical juncture of “oil for food,” Washington gradually started to take advantage of the defense and political power of two important Iraqi Kurdish parties, that is, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and assigned management of the Kurdish part of the country to them. This assignment became more serious and more official after 2003 and following the fall of the government of former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. During the past 10 years, the United States has taken important measures in this regard, the most important of which include:

1. Convincing the central government in Baghdad about giving a big chunk of the political power to Kurds, including the presidency and three ministerial posts in the Iraqi cabinet. As a result, while Iraqi Kurds have an independent establishment in the Iraq’s Kurdistan region, known as the Kurdistan Regional Government, with its own president, prime minister, intelligence service, police force, parliament and a defense force comprising 50,000 Peshmerga, they also occupy the presidential post and a few ministries in Baghdad while having a number of seats in the Iraqi parliament as well. In addition, they not only get 17 percent of Iraq’s oil revenue as annual budget, but also sell oil directly and through Turkey to global markets.

2. In its political and diplomatic relations, the United States has imparted some sort of legitimacy to the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. As a result, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, has so far met with various American presidents, including George Bush and Barack Obama, while prominent American officials have made frequent trips to Erbil, and the US consulate is also quite active in this city, which is the capital city of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

3. The United States has attached great significance to the role of Peshmerga forces in fighting against ISIS, and many European countries, encouraged by Washington, have dispatched arms and military advisors to Iraqi Kurds. And for the first time in the history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), representatives of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs took part in NATO meeting in 2015.

The United States has also certain plans revolving on the role of Kurds in Syria’s developments, which encompass both their role across Syria and their role in Kurdish regions of the country. However, the main point, which has led to ambiguity and tension in this case, is that the main power in the Kurdish regions in northern Syria is swayed by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is actually an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In other words, the power in northern parts of Syria is in the hands of a Kurdish force, which is at odds with two important regional allies of Washington, that is, Ankara and Erbil. However, the United States is trying to get them closer together and take advantage of all available capacities to achieve its goals.

In conclusion, one can claim that the United States’ strategy on the role of Kurds in Iraq and Syria is to take advantage of the defense capacity of both the Peshmerga forces that are commanded by Barzani, and the People's Protection Units (YPG), which are under the command of the leaders of PKK. Therefore, if any concession is going to be given to Kurds in this regard, it would be merely due to the defense preparedness of their militia and guerilla forces, their backdrop in organizing political and military activities, as well as their special geographical position, and evidence shows that interaction between Kurds and Washington will continue.

Key Words: US, Kurds, Syria, Iraq, Middle East, Democratic Union Party (PYD), Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Massoud Barzani, George Bush, Barack Obama, Kurdish Nationalism, NATO, Dastmali

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*Photo Credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP