Looking for Friends in the Middle East: Try the Kurds

David L. Phillips – Director, Program on Peace-building and Rights, Columbia University Institute for the Study of Human Rights

Posted: 09/25/2012 – Angry mobs recently attacked U.S. diplomatic facilities in dozens of countries, but not everyone in the Muslim world hates America. More than 25 million Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey are largely secular and pro-Western. Kurds understand that democracy and individual rights are compatible with Islamic values. The United States should take steps to consolidate friendly relations with the Kurds. U.S.-Kurdish rapprochement would serve as a counter-weight to political demagogy and Islamist extremism. It can also leverage reforms in countries where Kurds reside.

A steely-eyed approach is needed towards governments in the region. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has shunned U.S. interests. He also pursues polarizing policies, which fuel sectarian and ethnic conflict between Iraqis. Baghdad scorns Iraq’s constitution, preferring confrontation to power-sharing. It systematically encroaches on Kurdish territory, inflaming tensions along “disputed internal boundaries.” The Iraqi Government uses its security apparatus to trample the rights of Iraq’s Sunnis and target political opponents. Acting as a proxy for Iran, it facilitates the transfer of weapons from Tehran to Syria.

In contrast, Iraqi Kurds are unabashedly pro-American. Not a single American has died in Iraqi Kurdistan since Saddam’s overthrow in 2003. Iraqi Kurdistan has functioning democratic institutions, a vibrant civil society and an independent media. While corruption is still a problem, Iraqi Kurdistan is less corrupt than most neighbors.

Iraqi Kurds are America’s best and only friends in Iraq. To further strengthen U.S.-Kurdish amity, the United States should deepen security cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). While Baghdad rejected a status of forces agreement with the United States, the KRG welcomes it. The Pentagon should cancel its sale of Abrams-A1 tanks and F-16 fighter jets to Baghdad. Such weapons will most likely be used against Iraqis, rather than to protect Iraq from Iran and other rogue regimes with which Baghdad has cozy relations.

The KRG’s relations with Turkey have vastly improved since it started sharing intelligence on the PKK, a terrorist organization with remote bases in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Working hand-in-hand with Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan may one day become the Eastern flank of NATO.The United States also stands to gain economically by partnering with the KRG. Iraqi Kurdistan has a booming economy and huge energy reserves, including 45 billion barrels of oil. U.S. energy companies should be encouraged to develop Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil and natural gas fields notwithstanding Baghdad’s objections.

When it comes to Syria, KRG President Masoud Barzani is playing a helpful role bridging gaps between Syrian Kurds. In the 1990s, Kurdish controlled territory in the northeast of Syria was a staging ground for the PKK, which the U.S. and EU consider a terrorist organization. To prevent a recurrence, the Obama administration should pro-actively engage factions of Syrian Kurds to establish a secular, pro-Western platform within Syria. Kurdish democratic aspirations can be realized peacefully, in cooperation with Turkey and the West.

Regardless of the outcome to Syria’s civil war, the United States will have no friends in Syria except the Kurds. The Alawites deeply resent the West for abandoning them. Arab Sunni rebels feel let down by the United States; Washington is rightly reluctant to arm the Muslim Brotherhood lest its weapons eventually target U.S. interests.

In Iran, more can be done to provide political support to the Kurdish Iranian opposition. Iranian Kurds want to replace Iran’s theocracy with a federal democratic state. They supported the 2009 Green Revolution and have links to both the Iranian opposition and oppressed minorities — Arabs, Baluchis, and Azeris. Deposing the mullahs is the best to ensure that Iran does not cross the nuclear threshold.

U.S.-Kurdish regional rapprochement will be deeply unsettling to Turkey. The Obama administration will have to bend over backwards to reassure Turkey that its affinity for Kurds does not imply support for “Greater Kurdistan” or compromise its strategic partnership between Turkey and the United States. Focusing on the Kurds might ultimately create conditions benefiting Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan announced a “Democracy Opening” in 2010, aimed at addressing Kurdish grievances. However, he failed to deliver on promises for greater political and cultural rights. When Washington makes Kurdish issues a priority in the region, Erdogan might decide it is expedient to renew his commitment to Kurdish cultural and political rights, addressing the root causes of conflict and draining the swamp of support for the PKK.

Iraqi Kurds are proven, reliable partners. Washington should also nurture the pro-Western affinities of other Kurds. The United States must not take its friends for granted, while trying to placate its enemies.