By Don Parnell
A famous Kurdish saying goes that the Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.” To a certain extent, no words have ever been more accurate. The fate of the Kurds for the past few decades has been one of hope and disappointment. Much has been written about their challenges in this unique and complicated region of the world. Things can get very confusing, and our Kurdish brothers can be misrepresented or misunderstood at times in the world’s eyes.
Short-sighted politicians and foreign policy advisors have lacked the strategic wherewithal to understand this dynamic region and its importance to the United States Government (USG)’s longer-term interests in the area. America does not have a long-term strategy because the USG has no continuity of thinking beyond the end of a current administration (regardless of its political affiliation). Hopefully, we will continue to learn from our past missteps and keep a tight relationship with our Iraqi Kurdish brothers. Without them, America’s strategy in Iraq and Syria is at the mercy of Iran, and now potentially Russia.
Yet, in this critical region in the world, the USG needs to understand that our future lies with the Kurds – but which Kurds are we talking about? The history of the Kurdish region goes back hundreds of years. They are proud and culturally rich people. The western world tends to consider Kurds as one homogenous group. This would be a huge mistake and grossly misinformed. Not all Kurds are the same — not even close.
It is equally important and to understand their role in the region, but first, one has to understand the Kurds to understand best how and why the US needs them. The USG can both enhance its ability to project power and establish
ed a badly needed foothold in the Middle East. The implications are multifaceted and can favorably script the USG’s foreign policy for years to come. Over the past five years, Russia’s aggressive actions by deploying forces into Syria in the fall of 2015 have changed the geopolitical landscape. Countering Russia and Iranian aggression in the region will be critical for America. That said, first let’s look at the Kurds and who they are:
– Iraqi Kurds fall within two categories: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). There are others, but these two parties hold the majority of sway for the Iraq Kurdistan Region (IKR);
-PUK is a Kurdish nationalist political party. “The PUK describes its goals as self-determination, human rights, democracy, and peace for the Kurdish people of Kurdistan and Iraq. The PUK is under the leadership of co-presidents Lahur Talabany and Bafel Talabani.” They are very willing and able partners with the USG. Their close proximity to Iran is critical in assisting the USG in countering that country’s influence and dominance in this region. Based out of Sulaymaniyah, the PUK is part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), albeit a very disgruntled minority.
– The “KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) is the largest party in Iraq Kurdistan and the senior partner in the KRG.” The KDP is dominated by the Barzani tribe. Nechirvan Barzani is the KRG President, and his cousin Masrour Barzani is the Prime Minister. Though no longer in an official capacity, the true leader of the KRG/KDP is Masood Barzani (former President) and the father to Masrour and uncle to Nechirvan. The KDP is heavily involved in running the KRG (based in Erbil). Continual political disputes and power play between the KDP, PUK, and smaller parties are common and run the gamut of usual political and governmental issues.
– The Kurds in Syria have been a fairly autonomous group, most falling under the aegis of the YPG (People’s Protection Units). “The YPG mostly consists of ethnic Kurds, but also includes Arabs and foreign volunteers.” They have been a key partner for the US in eastern Syria in fighting ISIS. Lead by General Mazloum Kobani Abdi is trying to ensure total autonomy from the Syrian regime and the Turks. The Turks consider Mazloum and the YPG to be terrorists, and they have the evidence to back this up. Even the US government has declared the YPG and Mazloum terrorist, yet out of convenience, the US has great success partnered with him to go after ISIS. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is an ancient proverb, but it rings true regarding the USG relationship with the YPG.
– PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party) “is a Kurdish militant and political organization based in the Kurdish regions of Turkey and Iraq.” Since 1984, the PKK has been involved in a conflict with Turkey. Their main leaders are “Hülya Oran (also known as Besê Hozat and Cemîl Bayik (one of the five founders of the PKK).” The PKK has been “seeking autonomy and greater political and cultural rights for Kurds inside the Republic of Turkey.” The Turks consider them “public enemy number one.”They are indeed bonafide terrorists. (Please remember one person’s terrorist is another one’s patriot!) The Turks consider the PKK and YPG as allies due to General Mazloum’s significant ties to the PKK.
This can all be very confusing and, at times, detrimental to understanding the Kurds. It has been my opinion that the Kurds, in general, do a poor job uniting themselves in making their case to the world. For example, the PUK and the KDP spend more time fighting each other than anyone else. It is literally the bane of their respective existences. This is unfortunate but a reality of the region; when dealing with the Kurds, you must understand their history and have an empathetic ear.
To a certain extent, the KRG represents everything we collectively strive for in a democratic form of government. They are incredibly tolerant and open to new ideas. They welcome all religions and forms of expression (nearly 98% of Iraqi Kurds are Sunni Muslims). There are, of course, limits to all of this, but in general, it is the most impressive trait of our Kurdish brother’s exhibit. They have Christian enclaves and allow all types to thrive in their society. They have portions of Erbil that have accepted and embraced Western culture
s. In general, the Christian area of Ankawa in Erbil has numerous churches, alcohol is sold in modern Western restaurants, and businesses thrive. The USG should embrace this attitude in a region that widely lacks socioeconomic and religious transparency.
So what does any of this have to do with the USG supporting the Kurds? And which Kurds? This unbelievably complicated and multi-dimensional region reveals one consistent message for the USG: the Kurds whom the USG needs to support in the long term are the KDP and the PUK. Both have been great partners of the USG. Though both are part of the KRG, due to the deeply rooted differences between both parties’ leadership, the PUK has significant issues with the KDP and, subsequently, their role in the KRG. The conflict runs deep and beyond the scope of this article. Both the KDP and PUK are very capable, but they need America’s help both to combat maligned Iranian influence in Iraq and to work better with the Iraqi government. The Kurds are said to be the “kingmakers in the region” due to their significant numbers in Turkey, Syria, and Iran. This is still very much the truth.
Unfortunately, the USG has a long history of abandoning the Kurds – something always at the forefront in any Kurdish leader’s mind when discussing USG support to the region. The list is rather lengthy but includes a number of historic examples:1- the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, 2- in 1963 the USG cut off aid to the Kurds, 3- 1970s deal with Iran (Shah) to arm the Kurds against Iraq to bleed the Iraqi army but not back them when the Iraqi military moved north to slaughter more Kurds, 4- 1980s when the USG turned the other way when Saddam was conducting genocide against the Kurds, but the USG supported him in the war against Iran, 5- 1991 Gulf war when we asked for the Kurds to rise up against Saddam but failed to support them, 6- 1990s the USG supported the Turks to kill tens of thousands of Kurds, 7- 2000s the USG allowed the Turks again to carry out a Kurdish bombing campaign, and some say in 2019 the Trump Administration provided the Turks the green light to occupy and invade portions of Syrian Kurd territory.
Short-sighted politicians and foreign policy advisors have lacked the strategic wherewithal to understand this dynamic region and its importance to the USG’s longer-term interests in the area. America does not have a long-term strategy because the USG has no continuity of thinking beyond the end of a current administration (regardless of its political affiliation). Hopefully, we will continue to learn from our past missteps and keep a tight relationship with our Iraqi Kurdish brothers. Without them, America’s strategy in Iraq and Syria is totally at the mercy of the Iranians.
Besides the Turks, the Iranians have largely taken over much of Iraq proper (excluding the Iraq Kurdistan region). The failed “One Iraq” policy has been a huge miscalculation. It was doomed to fail since it lacked a clear understanding of the political, tribal, and historical dynamics of both Iraq proper and the region writ large.
For the past 17 years, the USG has followed a path leading to failure after failure. Co-joined by the deeply rooted Shia and Sunni conflict, the Kurds have always found themselves not only in the minority but a common enemy of both. No one will admit it, and no one will say that America is giving up on Iraq. Since the USG created this disaster back in 2003, it has felt obligated to try to repair the colossal damage wrought. The shortcomings of the Bush Iraq invasion plan in 2003 and their reasons justifying the Iraqi war set the pace for the next 17 years of failed US foreign policy in this region. That was followed by some significant shortcomings of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. These back to back administrations have been a “perfect” storm for bad foreign policy decisions across the board. I could list them all, but I will hold that for another day.
Our Kurdish brothers have seen this play out and have tried their best to improve the terrible hand dealt them. Nationalized since the 1800s, the Kurds are landlocked 40 million people who reside in a large contiguous region spanning four countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey); the Kurds of “Kurdistan” have been at a geographical disadvantage from the beginning. This has been covered already. The USG unequivocally opposed the 25 September 2017 Kurdistan Regional Government referendum on Independence. The timing of this referendum doomed the Iraqi Kurds.
At that time, the USG was unwilling to give up on the Iraqi Government in Baghdad and the “One Iraq policy.”Now three years later, many are wondering if that time has come. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi faces an uphill battle to rule, with little on his side. The Iranians control the Shia militia groups and, to a certain extent, the Iraqi security forces. The USG is pressuring Al-Kadimi to go after these Shia militia groups and better protect US personnel and facilities in-country. Yet, he lacks the political will and ability to do so. The USG has put the Iraqi government in a no-win situation that no leader can overcome due to the extensive Shia and Iranian control of the Iraqi government.
The USG needs to continue to expand its presence and warfighting capabilities in northern Iraq. Our KDP and PUK brothers would be more than happy to accommodate. US Forces permanently stationed in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah would strengthen the US commitment in this region, plus enhance our military options if having to deal with the Iranian regime. None of this would sit well with the Iranians, having US bases just a few miles from their border. Most of this would be strategic posturing, but it would send a clear signal.
Erbil should continue to serve as the hub for US forces and should continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Erbil is critical because it has the infrastructure, the security apparatus, a world-class airport runway, and most importantly — the relationship with the Turks allowing precious supplies needed by the US war-fighting machine to flow in from Turkey. It is not the greatest of relationships, but the KRG is at least on “speaking terms” with the Turkish government.
The KDP is not particularly aligned with its PKK/YPG brethren in Syria. The PUK is more aligned and sympathetic to their PKK/YPG brothers. The KRG and KDP are obviously sympathetic to their cause, yet they try to stay out of the middle of the PKK dispute with Turkey. Much of this Kurdish back and forth is typical political jockeying between various Kurdish entities.
Many will say if we go “all in the with the Kurds,” Baghdad will fall and will become entirely controlled by the Iranian regime. To a certain extent, it already has, but we collectively don’t want to admit it. Regardless, the USG needs to continue to work with Baghdad and at the same time maintain and grow our forces in Kurdistan. We moreover need to affirm to the KRG that the USG is here to stay and will support Kurdish independence…if they can stop fighting amongst themselves. The USG cannot abandon their Kurdish brothers. It must continue to optimize its position in this ever-increasing important region in the world.
About the Author:
Don Parnell recently retired after a distinguished 24-year career serving as a CIA paramilitary and operations officer. He is also a former United States Marine infantry officer. Mr. Parnell served in various senior leadership positions within the CIA, which included multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Parnell’s commendations include; the Distinguished Intelligence Cross, the Distinguished Intelligence Star, the Wazir Akbar Khan Medal, awarded by Afghanistan President Karzai, and the Career Intelligence Medal for distinguished career service. Don is also on the Expert Cadre of Lobo Institute.
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