The U.S. Must Stand by and for the Kurds
Story Stream
recent articles

Amidst the recent tragic attack on a U.S. base in eastern Syria by an Iran-backed militia resulting in the loss of six Kurdish members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), it is imperative for the United States to reevaluate its commitment to the Kurdish people, our steadfast allies in the region.

The Kurds, a resilient and significant ethnic group without a recognized state of their own, have long been instrumental in the fight against terrorism and the preservation of American interests in a volatile Middle East. It is time for the U.S. to honor its promises, acknowledge the historical injustices faced by the Kurds, and stand firmly in support of their aspirations for autonomy and security.

It is an appropriate moment to step back, appreciate Kurdish history, and consider our obligations to the Kurds not only in Syria but in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran as well.

The Kurds, predominantly Sunni Muslims, are the most populous ethnic group on earth without a recognized state of their own. A diverse group of some 25 to 30 million people, about half of the Kurds inhabit lands across parts of Southeast Turkey. Most rest live in northeast Syria, northern and western Iran, southwestern Armenia, and northern Iraq.

The most prominent feature of the Kurdish landscape is the rugged mountains of the eastern Taurus-Zagros Mountain range. Because of the mountains’ imposing nature, armies have had trouble conquering the area, which has allowed the Kurdish people to survive in their fastnesses throughout the centuries. Indeed, a famous Kurdish proverb says, "The Kurds have no friends but the mountains."

The proverb has proven, sadly, to be true.

The Kurds were promised a state in the wake of the First World War – that is, after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire – in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. Nevertheless, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne reneged on this promise.

In 1991, after a Kurdish revolt against Saddam Hussein, the Western powers established a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds. Under this umbrella, the Kurds were able to form their de-facto autonomous region in Iraq, the Kurdistan Region (KRI). Baghdad has worked to claw back much of this autonomy in recent years.

The Kurds, a beleaguered non-Arab minority, have been a true friend to the United States.

The U.S. received support from the Iraqi Kurds during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Kurds did the brunt of the fighting against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq and are primarily responsible for the defeat of the "caliphate."

After ISIS's defeat, the Kurds established their government in northern Syria: the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), popularly known as Rojava.

However, while the Kurds have some autonomy in Syria and Iraq, nowhere do they have a state.

Instead, they are squeezed from all sides.

In Turkey, Kurdish rights have been curtailed. The Turkish army has occupied parts of the KRI. Ever since the U.S. withdrew its troops from strategic points in northern Syria in 2019, Turkey has periodically invaded northern Syria to go after the SDF, which has some ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turkish government’s mortal enemy of four decades. Turkish military incursions into Afrin, Syria, are geared toward the ethnic cleansing of Kurds.

In Syria, the Kurds were denied citizenship from 1962 to 2011. As part of his policy of Arabization, Hafez al-Assad displaced Kurds along Syria’s border with Turkey and settled Arabs in their place.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein launched the genocidal Anfal campaign in the 1980s, in which – by the most conservative estimates – more than 50,000 Kurdish civilians were killed. The Iraqi army gassed 5,000 Kurdish civilians to death in Halabja in 1988.

Iran has targeted oil and gas infrastructure as well as American military installations inside the KRI, where Iran wields a significant amount of soft power. Iran seeks to prevent “the emergence of a strong, autonomous, and economically viable KRG [Kurdish Regional Government] that enjoys good relations with the United States, Israel, and other actors.”

Hence, Iran's targeting of prominent Kurdish businessmen in Erbil, the KRG's capital, including last month and in March 2022. In both cases, Iran absurdly claimed to be targeting the Israeli Mossad.

In other words, Kurdish history in the past century has been brutal, to put it gently.

The U.S. must recognize and support Kurdish aspirations for autonomy and, indeed, outright statehood. The Kurds have been stalwart allies for decades. They deserve no less.

Military assistance and training of Kurdish forces will ensure their ability to maintain stability and counter regional threats, which are legion.

The U.S. should facilitate diplomatic discussions between Kurdish leaders and the governments of Turkey and Iraq to address concerns about Kurdish independence.

The U.S. should also do everything it can to encourage economic development in Kurdish regions to form the backbone of a sustainable and stable Kurdish state.

The U.S. must prove that it is a trustworthy friend to the Kurds. We just abandoned our partners in Afghanistan. We cannot allow this to become a pattern.

The Kurds should not have to rely on the mountains alone.

Gregg Roman is director of the Middle East Forum and a former official at the Israeli Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense.