Obama and the Kurds: A Frigid Marriage

In a recent campaign add run by Scott Brown, the former senator accuses President Obama of being “confused” about the threat ISIS poses. I first heard about this on NPR, and on the program it produced some counter-spin from E.J. Dionne, a guest on the show. “I think the president took a little bit out of that argument by how tough he’s been on ISIS,” Dione grumbled. Unfortunately this comment is an example of the confusion referred to, because it mistakes dropping bombs on people with thinking clearly about the nature of our problem. It is the partnerships we form, not the decision to bomb, that will determine any chance for American success in this latest Mideast war.

In no area is this confusion more evident than our relations with the Kurds. Obama has gone through enormous trouble to create a coalition that targets ISIS in Syria, but until last week he failed to include the one group in that country that has withstood ISIS on the battlefield. That would be the YPG, a Kurdish militia that took over significant territory in three northern cantons of Syria after Bashar Assad’s authority crumbled. It wasn’t just the YPG. It was also the YPJ, a militia of Kurdish women who fight alongside the men. The Syrian Kurds, much like their counterparts in Iraq, have built a secular system in their area. They empower women, and they shelter thousands of Syria’s minorities. It was the Syrian Kurds who crossed the Iraqi frontier and rescued the Yezidi minority on Mount Sinjar.

Given all the unsavory actors in Obama’s Syria coalition, why the long delay in including the relatively tolerant Kurds? The answer takes us back to Obama’s confused priorities. The Kurdish militias are loosely affiliated with the PKK, a group of Kurds in Turkey who have been placed on the US terrorism list. There’s no evidence that Syrian Kurds have targeted civilians (just the opposite in fact), and the PKK itself is on the list because the Turkish government finds it convenient to lump separatists with terrorists. But that nuance is lost on everyone. The PKK are paper terrorists, therefore the Syrian Kurds were off limits.

Putting aside the problematic nature of using the terrorism list as a political cudgel, it’s worth noting that even the Turks were not this fanatical – they invited the Syrian Kurdish leader to Ankara for talks. This put Obama in the absurd position of being more Turkish than the Turks. The result is that even as Obama launched a new American air war in the Middle East, he ruled out in advance dealing with the one liberal faction in the country he was bombing.

I’ve brought this up at various times with liberal colleagues, and the response is always some variant of, “well, it may not make sense, but that’s American policy.” This is maddening. “It’s our policy,” is the kind of answer you expect from overwhelmed airline employees, not the people running America’s war effort. One would think that the deadly seriousness of ordering Americans into a war zone would concentrate minds and force some re-evaluation of unhelpful policies.

The truth is that frigidity towards Kurds affects almost every aspect of this president’s Mideast policy. I’ve already written in detail how the American state department has undermined the current military effort in Iraq through an economic boycott on Kurdish oil. The ostensible reason for that policy is something called “Iraqi unity,” which would be a wonderful thing if it existed in the real world. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Visa restrictions on Kurds remain a preferred form of harassment. More importantly, as Gram Slattery has argued, the State Department effort to organize the Syrian opposition has systematically excluded Kurds from the process. Given an opportunity to deal with secular Kurds, our State Department shows a consistent preference for “moderate” Sunni Arabs. These preferred groups haven’t shown moderate inclinations, and they’ve been soundly beaten on the battlefield. But never mind. The priority is not to build a capable opposition, but rather to put together a photogenic display of Arab unity.

The most vivid example of anti-Kurdish bias occurred on the battlefield in Northern Syria. One of the three Kurdish cantons around the town of Kobani came under fierce attack by ISIS fighters. This triggered a massive round of ethnic cleansing, with hundreds of thousands of Kurds and other minorities forced into Turkish refugee camps. The Kurds have fought ferociously for over four weeks, but they are armed only with light weapons. In contrast ISIS has a full armament of material looted from the Iraqi Army in Mosul. Those American weapons, delivered unthinkingly to the Iraqi Government of Nouri al-Maliki, were part of an earlier Obama effort to arm fictional moderates.

The president announced his intention to defeat ISIS in Syria on September 10th, and American pilots began dropping bombs on September 23rd. Despite this, there was no attempt to provide effective air support to the Kurdish fighters until mid-October, when Kobani was nearly overrun and the prospect of a televised massacre loomed. Relief efforts were non-existent. For weeks not a single bottle of water, meal ration, or cartridge of ammunition fell from the American patrolled sky. The acuity of the crisis prompted hard questions for American military officers, whose fumbled answers about their “broadly focused” Syria mission made it clear they weren’t expected to win any actual battles.

Since last week there has been a complete reversal. American pilots are now coordinating with Kurds on the ground, and there are efforts underway to resupply the besieged fighters from the ground and the air. As in Iraq, the president seems to have realized (with his usual sluggishness) that winning the actual battle against ISIS is more important than avoiding public support for Kurds.

This brings us back to strategic confusion. The obvious discomfort this administration has with supporting Kurdish autonomy is badly outmoded. It no longer makes any sense to weld ourselves to “unity” policies in Iraq and Syria. As the military has found it’s like trying to box on quicksand. Support for Kurdish rights offers a far firmer footing on the ground, and it has the advantage of reflecting American values better than our current deference to Turkish and Arab ethnic chauvinism.

The Kurdish resistance to ISIS in Syria and Iraq has forced us to shift our military plan, and it should prompt us to reassess our diplomatic and economic approach as well. We should drop our self-defeating opposition to Kurds selling oil. We should welcome their students and diplomats. We should include them as full partners in post-war planning, not try to suppress them by incorporating them into larger and less competent groups. We should encourage in every way their strength, prosperity, and independence.

If there’s to be any chance of a tolerant government in any part of Syria or Iraq, a strong Kurdish community will be a major part of it. That is true regardless of whether or not Kurds ultimately opt for independence. The president has been slow to understand this, and he has allowed events to push him into a reluctant and partial partnership with the Kurds. But until he embraces Kurds more fully the consequence is another American war without reliable partners, a realistic objective, or much chance of a humane outcome.

Jonathan Dworkin

Jonathan Dworkin Dworkin is an infectious diseases doctor. He’s the author of the first medical study to investigate the long-term social impact of chemical weapons on the people of Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan. His more recent work has focused on typhoid fever in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimania. He has written several articles on Kurdish culture, Kurdish politics, and relations with America.