Every time a politician suggests a new approach to Middle East policy, the Kurdish ethnic group comes up as an unlikely ally. “We need to arm the Kurds now,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R – Texas) said in September. “We need to directly arm the Kurds,” former governor Jeb Bush (R – Fla.) declared in December. Even Democratic candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed, noting that the Kurds “have to be in the fight.”
On the surface, the catch-all phrase “arm the Kurds” may seem a logical step toward a more effective Middle East strategy. But who exactly are “the Kurds”? Would support be conditioned by location, alliances or history? While political discourse often ignores these factors, considering the context and implications of such a foreign policy initiative is imperative to ensuring that it will not damage the interests of the United States and its allies.
In 1916, the Sykes-Picot agreement divided the Kurds, then an autonomous group within the Ottoman Empire, between French-controlled Syria and British-controlled Iraq. The Kurds were further splintered after Kurdish areas in Syria were resettled in 1973, causing the relocation of over 140,000 Kurds to other areas of the country. After Syria’s 2011 revolution, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, PYD, consolidated power and established itself as a prominent political and military actor in the ensuing chaos.
Iraqi Kurds have a similarly tragic history, having been subjected to relocation campaigns and massacres by former dictator Saddam Hussein. After Hussein was toppled in 2003, tensions developed between the partially autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, and the Baghdad regime, resulting in occasional clashes between Iraqi forces and Kurds.
The country commonly associated with Kurdish hardships, however, is Turkey. Responding to repression and intolerance, the pro-independence Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, orchestrated bombings and assassinations until signing a 2013 ceasefire with the Turkish government. Tensions did not abate, however, and after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cited the conflict against the Islamic State group as a pretext for striking Kurdish positions, the PKK responded with terrorist attacks responsible for hundreds of casualties. In March, a PKK bombing in the Turkish capital of Ankara killed 37 people.
In July 2014, IS group advances provided an opportunity for Kurdish forces to take over the oil-rich Kirkuk region, further establishing its desire for territorial dominance. Due to the Kurds’ active engagement in combating IS group forces, the U.S. government considers the KRG a reliable actor. However, fears of damaging ties with the Iraqi government have dissuaded policymakers from offering KRG President Massoud Barzani direct financial and military aid. In June 2015, the Senate refused to authorize shipments of weaponry and communication technology to Kurdish forces.
At the same time, the PYD is poised to play a significant role in determining the future of post-Assad Syria, but the organization faces staunch opposition to its participation in peace talks from the Turkish government, which believes that legitimizing Syrian Kurds could inspire challenges to territorial sovereignty.
The importance of Kurdish factions in the Syrian Civil War and the fight against IS group necessitates a comprehensive strategy that will orient regional players toward shared objectives. In Iraq, where the primary goals of the Uniteed States are to eradicate IS group and re-establish a unified state, policymakers should prioritize economic and military cooperation between the KRG and the Iraqi regime. While directly funding Kurdish militias might catalyze the coalition campaign, such a policy could deepen a rift between KRG and Baghdad. However, supporting the central government with provisions that specify quantities of supplies intended for Kurdish use could achieve combat objectives while concurrently preserving political ties.
In Syria, the United States must convince Turkey to allow PYD participation in the peace process to ensure the sustainability of negotiated resolution. Officials have urged the PYD to distance itself from the PKK, but the United States should publicly back Erdogan in his anti-PKK crusade to assuage the Turkish government’s fears over the Kurds. While this undertaking may prove difficult, counterterrorism cooperation could re-establish trust and provide leverage to steer Turkey toward more conciliatory stances concerning the treatment of Kurdish groups.
While the Kurds have unquestionably suffered under foreign occupation, the United States should not advocate the crafting of an independent Kurdistan, but promote a continuation of the present state system in which Iraq, Syria and Turkey retain respective Kurdish populations. Such an arrangement would theoretically inhibit self-determination. If the United States pursues the mentioned policies, local Kurdish communities will be seen by their host countries not as burdensome dependents, but as valuable partners integral to proper government functionality.
Determining the future of Kurdish lands will be a convoluted process, marred by a host of pitfalls and undesirable outcomes. It is a minefield that U.S. leaders can navigate, but doing so requires a strategy decidedly more nuanced than simply arming the Kurds.
Matthew Gregory is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. This is the final installment of Sense of the Middle East.