Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Our "Greatest Friends" the Kurds

Who are our "greatest friends" in the Middle East?


Saudi Arabia?


I was surprised to hear Brett McGurk on NPR say it was the Kurds.
I've been in a lot of high-level policy meetings in a situation room across two administrations. I've never heard the policy called a one Iraq policy. We work with Erbil very closely and with Baghdad very closely. The Kurds are our closest friends in the region.
One important issue when describing the Kurds as our closest allies is, Which Kurds?


As is clearly seen from this map of "Kurdistan," when people talk about "The Kurds" it must be clear what country they are talking about to understand US foreign policy towards the Kurds in that particular region.  The US treats Kurds differently in Iraq versus Turkey, and the same is true about those in Iran and Syria.  There is no generality here.

The Washington Post headline makes that clear, although I am sure many are surprised to hear this if they don't know the history.
This initiative doesn't just involve the pesh merga affiliated with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, but a whole constellation of Kurdish units drawn from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. One of the main organizations in the counteroffensive against the Islamic State is the Turkish-based Kurdistan Workers' Party, known by its acronym, PKK. Because of its history of militancy and violence in Turkey, it is still recognized by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization.
The PKK emerged as a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization in the 1970s, seeking Kurdish independence from a Turkish state that had long suppressed the Kurdish identity and language. It employed terror tactics by the 1980s, carrying out bombing attacks and kidnappings. Its decades-old insurgency has claimed some 40,000 lives, though in recent years the PKK has found ground for rapprochement with Ankara and has ceased hostilities. A peace deal led to the withdrawal of PKK forces to camps in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Now, PKK fighters are manning the front line by the Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Aided by U.S. airstrikes on Islamic State positions, they also helped take back the key town of Makhmour from the Islamic State on Monday.
Meanwhile, it's already apparent the United States is arming two other Iraqi Kurdish factions, the PUK and KDP, which are nevertheless categorized as "Tier III" terror organizations by the State Department. 

Many people who have followed the Iraq War even slightly may have heard that Iraqi Kurdistan is a region of stability over the last decade.  When Saddam Hussein was in power America supported the Kurdish fight for independence against Saddam at the same time that we designated the Kurds in our ally Turkey a terrorist group.

They all want the same thing--a national state declared for the Kurds.  Many argue that Iraq and now Syria already have established separate states out of the necessity to do so in light of the civil war in Syria and the war in Iraq. 

Now we are arming the Iraqi Kurds and Brett McGurk says rather surprisingly that they are "our closest friends in the region."

I wonder if he means all of them now.

See also

Does Washington have a Policy towards Syria's Kurds?  November 2013

Saleh Muslim, the co-chair of the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD)
The problem was that Muslim wasn’t able to leave the Syrian Kurdish region of Rojava to which he had returned after his son was killed in clashes with Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) gangs. He had returned to Syria via Iraqi Kurdistan, but now was being denied passage out.
To have denied a visa to come to Washington to a Kurdish politician — who is resisting al-Qaeda forces in Syria and who has expressed, in fluent English, his ardent desire to establish relations with the Western world — just two weeks after his son was killed by al-Qaeda must have been embarrassing to Americans attending the meeting. One of them later told me: “One day we will solve this problem. Tomorrow there will be a meeting at the State Department about this.

Syrian Kurds declare Independence
Syrian Kurds declared an autonomous government in northern Syria on Tuesday, a move that follows in the footsteps of Iraqi Kurds who have established what scholars often describe as a prosperous "quasi-state" thanks to the US-led wars in Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
emphasis mine
Though the declaration of autonomy by Syrian Kurds defies both Turkey and the US
but remember they are our "closest friends" in the region

its timing is ideal and nobody seems to be able to reverse the move in a region mired in turmoil. Coming just a day before the Geneva II conference, where Kurds have no direct representation, the announcement has raised further doubts about the effectiveness of world powers to find a top-down solution for Syria's increasingly multi-dimensional conflict.

Why Iran Fears Iraq's Kurds
While Obama and other countries rush to defend the Kurds, Iran is worried that if they gain their independence, and Iraq breaks up, Iran might be next. 
For almost a century since the end of World War I and the creation of Iraq from parts of the Ottoman Empire, both Iran and Turkey have worried that the creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq would encourage their own Kurdish political or paramilitary groups and citizens to join that independent Kurdish entity.
Why Iran Fears Independent Kurdistan 

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