Make Kurdistan Free Again? U.S. Policy, President Trump, and the Kurds
“No friends but the mountains.” ― Kurdish Proverb
With the surprise election victory of Donald Trump, many Kurds within the four regions of Greater Kurdistan and abroad in the diaspora are curious about what the future entails. Their interest is more than justified, as with Turkey arresting HDP representatives and ramping up their brutal occupation of Northern Kurdistan (Bakur), the Peshmerga of Southern Kurdistan (Bashur) advancing against ISIS in Mosul, the PYD fending off ISIS and Turkish-backed Islamist ‘rebels’ in Western Kurdistan (Rojava), and Iranian mullahs continuing to openly hang Kurdish dissidents in Eastern Kurdistan (Rojhilat); U.S. support for the Kurdish people is of critical importance.
However, history shows that Kurds should be cautious in their optimism. The reason is that U.S. foreign policy and imperialist hegemony is practically immune to whichever party is in power and basically operates independently of the domestic political process. More specifically, both Democratic and Republican administrations have continually sporadically-assisted and then later betrayed the Kurdish people in favor of American geo-political interests.
THE PAST AS PROLOGUE
In 1973, on the precipice of the Second Iraqi–Kurdish War (1974-1975), the Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani told The Washington Post, “I trust America. America is too great a power to betray a small people like the Kurds.” Unfortunately, his calculation was mistaken and the U.S. would soon cut off the arms shipments they had been providing the Kurds of Bashur since 1972 to defend themselves against Baghdad’s Ba’athism and provide a distraction from the pressure being placed on the U.S.-backed Shah across the border in Iran.
In fact, when Mustafa Barzani bewilderingly wrote to Republican-appointed U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—a man who he had previously given three rugs and a gold and pearl necklace as a wedding gift—with, “Your Excellency, the United States has a moral and political responsibility to our people”, there was no reply. As a sign of how Kissinger viewed the importance of such loyalty, two years later in 1975, he told the U.S. Congress’ House Intelligence Committee that, “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” As a relevant aside, four decades later Democrat Hillary Clinton cited Republican Kissinger as one of her friends during the 2016 primary process for her parties’ nomination.
Subsequently, during the 1980’s, when Saddam Hussein began to implement his genocidal Al-Anfal campaign (1986-1989) throughout Bashur—which included the horrific March 16, 1988, gassing and murder of 5,000 Kurds in Halabja—few in the American press pointed out that the only reason Saddam even possessed such gas was because the Republican Reagan Administration had previously removed Iraq from the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in order to help them kill Iranians in the ongoing Iran-Iraq War (1982-1988).
Eventually, at the start of 1991, ‘Operation Desert Storm’ saw the U.S. removal of Iraq’s Army from Kuwait and the establishment of a ‘no-fly’ zone over Southern Kurdistan (Northern ‘Iraq’). However, even then, U.S. intervention shouldn’t be confused with a humanitarian concern for the Kurds rather than oil, as Lawrence Korb, Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of Defense (1981-85), succinctly summed up American interests by honestly admitting that, “If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn’t give a damn.”
Moreover, throughout the next decade of the 1990’s as the U.S. Air Force protected the Kurds of Bashur from Saddam in ‘Iraq’, the Democratic Clinton Administration militarily assisted Turkey in the systematic destruction of over 4,000 Kurdish villages across the border in Northern Kurdistan (SE ‘Turkey’). As Noam Chomsky has pointed out:
“In the 1990s, it was the Kurdish population of Turkey that suffered the most repression. Tens of thousands were killed; thousands of towns and villages were destroyed, millions driven from the lands and homes, with hideous barbarity and torture. The Clinton administration gave crucial support throughout, providing Turkey lavishly with means of destruction… Turkey became the leading recipient of US arms, apart from Israel-Egypt, a separate category. Clinton provided 80% of Turkish arms, doing his utmost to ensure that Turkish violence would succeed. Virtual media silence made a significant contribution to these efforts.”
To give you an idea of the scope, in the year 1997 alone, U.S. arms shipments to Turkey exceeded the combined total for the entire Cold War period. With Ankara purchasing so many weapons and Cobra helicopters to slaughter rebelling Kurds, 1997 was ‘coincidentally’ also the same year that the U.S. State Department inexplicably listed the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) as an FTO (Foreign Terrorist Organization) at the behest of Turkey, despite the fact that PKK guerrillas had never killed a single American and had been leading an armed rebellion against the Turkish oppression discussed in Chomsky’s remarks since 1984.
The fact that the PKK still unjustly remains on this list nearly twenty years later, despite being one of the most effective fighters against ISIS, promoting a progressive philosophy of democratic confederalism that respects minority rights and women, and saving around 40,000 Yazidi people on Mt. Sinjar in 2014 when the rest of the world left them to die, tells you all you really need to know about how much importance the U.S. government traditionally places on truth and morality, instead of financial and geo-political interests.
HOPE AMIDST HISTORY
When you consider the degree to which Hillary Clinton’s husband armed Turkey in the 1990’s as they slaughtered thousands of Kurdish people, you can’t really blame Kurds for distrusting that her Presidency would have been a positive step for Kurdish liberation. Despite the fact that Hillary actually mentioned arming and supporting the Kurds twice in the Presidential debates—while Donald Trump did not—anecdotally, I observed a sincere distrust amongst many Kurds that her Presidency would have been a good development for a future Kurdistan. Likewise, I have witnessed many diaspora Kurds—especially those from Bashur—express an optimism that Donald Trump will finally be the U.S. leader to help usher in independence for Southern Kurdistan and help destroy ISIS to the benefit of the entire Kurdish region. The evidence for this belief is fairly sparse, and primarily consists of two statements that Trump is on the record of making regarding the Kurds.
In the first, during an interview with author Stephen Mansfield, Trump when asked about defeating ISIS replied that, “First of all the Kurds have to be brought into (sic), because they are good fighters and we treat them terribly. And they are the ones that really seem to be the ones that fight.” In the same interview Trump added:
“We [The U.S.] do have some great fighters with the Kurds. And they are the ones that really do seem to be the fighters. And they know what they’re doing. But they don’t have the equipment. We’re giving our equipment to people that run every time a bullet gets fired.”
In a second instance, while campaigning in Nashville, Tennessee (home to the largest Kurdish population within the U.S.), Trump was asked about the Kurds and replied that:
“The Kurdish people. We should be using the Kurdish. We should be arming the Kurdish. They’ve proven to be the best fighters. They’ve really proven to be the most loyal to us. And as far as I’m concerned, I didn’t know that Nashville had a large Kurdish population, but I will tell you, that, we should be using and utilizing those people. They have great heart. They are great fighters. And we should be working with them much more so than we’re working.”
Setting aside the fact that Trump incorrectly spoke of the Kurds as ‘The Kurdish’—calling into question how thoroughly he understands the complexity of the situation—for Kurds, it is predictable that hearing such words from a now U.S. President would give them hope and perhaps even confidence. However, what Trump has not identified, is if he places all Kurdish “great fighters” battling ISIS in the same category (i.e. KRG Peshmerga, PYD, and the PKK), or if his assistance will selectively divide them into ‘Good Kurd, Bad Kurd’ categories as all past U.S. administrations have since the 1980’s.
For instance, will Trump view the mostly-Kurdish YPG and YPJ in Rojava—which has been receiving air assistance from the U.S. against ISIS—in the same way as the Peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Bashur? That much is not clear. It also isn’t clear to what degree the Kurds of Rojava will be affected by a potential repairing of relations between the U.S. and Russia, with the latter interested in preserving the Assad regime, but also more proactive in bombing both ISIS and anti-Assad Turkish-backed ‘rebels’.
On the positive side of the ledger for the Kurds, a President Trump has announced that he would “bomb the shit out of” ISIS; however, Trump has also said that he believes the U.S. should have simply taken Iraq’s oil following the invasion and subsequent occupation of that country, which calls into question the degree to which Trump—who favors increasing the size of the U.S. military despite his flirtations with non-interventionism—would use military force for blatant objectives of U.S. imperialism.
TURKEY, NATO, IRAN, INDEPENDENCE
Another area of potential concern is the degree to which Trump’s past appreciation of such Kurdish fighters is genuine and rooted in a full understanding of their struggle for autonomy and human rights. For instance, I believe it is legitimate to question if perhaps Trump only superficially likes Kurds for the same reasons many conservative American Christians do, namely because he doesn’t realize they are mostly Muslim as well, and unknowingly sees them as part of a quasi-crusade, where they are the ‘good Middle Easterners’ who will defeat the ‘evil Islamic ones’. Likewise, when you consider that Trump previously proposed a ban of Muslims entering the U.S. during his campaign, then it’s reasonable for Kurdish Muslims to wonder what sort of ally he would be.
With regards to U.S. domestic partisanship and ideology, it is also sensible to be cautious about how much a Trump Presidency—led by an emboldened Republican Congress and Senate—will be ok with the optics of arming and assisting the leftist and Apoist PYD in Rojava, or perhaps even removing the Kurdish PKK from the FTO ‘Terrorist’ list they still unjustly remain on. It’s also hard to see a Trump Presidency voicing any support for the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, who Turkey has shamefully locked away for the past seventeen years in an island prison—similar to Nelson Mandela—for demanding that Kurds within Turkey be granted their inalienable rights.
With regards to the aforementioned issue of FTO removal for the PKK, this would inevitably anger U.S. NATO-ally Turkey and the increasingly dictatorial regime of Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. Relatedly, as for Turkey, a host of other important questions remain. For instance, will a Trump Presidency be more or less critical of Erdoğan’s growing domestic authoritarianism against the Kurds? Of note, such suppression is not only targeted at Bakur’s 20+ million Kurds, but also includes the recent arrests of their political representation by jailing the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ.
Since Trump’s own similar ego and bombastically-expressed desire to jail Hillary Clinton mirrors Erdoğan’s policies to jail his opponents, there is a cause for concern on that front. Connectedly, a July 20, 2016, editorial for The New York Times by Thomas Friedman entitled ‘Trump and the Sultan’ warned that: “America is not Turkey—but in terms of personality and political strategy, Erdogan and Donald Trump were separated at birth”, before adding, “If you like what’s going on in Turkey today, you’ll love Trump’s America.”
Furthermore, will a Trump Presidency demand that the Turkish military stop their practice of arming and assisting ISIS as a proxy force against the Kurds of Rojava? And will a Trump Presidency look the other way as Turkey continues to arm Ahrar al-Sham, the al-Nusra front, and a host of various Turkmen Islamists in Syria who are ISIS and al-Qaeda in everything but name only? With relation to that, to his credit, Trump did tell Sirius XM’s ‘Breitbart News Daily’ in December of 2015 that, “Turkey looks like they’re on the side of ISIS, more or less based on the oil.” Unfortunately, since Trump also disseminated so many other demonstrably false ‘conspiracies’ during his campaign, this so-called conspiracy hidden in plain sight (which happens to be true) largely went ignored by the media.
In addition, since it seems Trump is at least partially aware of Turkey’s actions, it opens up the even more drastic question of whether a Trump Presidency would support removing Turkey from NATO altogether for their documented backing of ISIS? On that issue, the only hint we have is that in March 2016, Trump questioned the usefulness of NATO following the Brussels terror attacks by calling the institution “obsolete”, while adding, “It’s become very bureaucratic, extremely expensive and maybe is not flexible enough to go after terror. Terror is very much different than what NATO was set up for.”
But what happens when NATO (by way of Turkey) are actually the ones directly sponsoring the ISIS terrorism that Trump wants to destroy? And would a President Trump consider the morally-justified armed resistance of the PKK within Turkey part of a legitimate ‘War on Terror’ for Ankara’s regime?
Another interesting aspect of a Trump Presidency will be how he deals with the Iranian Government in Tehran. For instance, if the Kurds of Southern Kurdistan call for independence from Iraq, will he support a similar call for independence in Eastern Kurdistan (northwest ‘Iran’)? You also have the possibility of Trump viewing Kurdish forces in Rojhilat (PDKI, Komalah, and PJAK) as a form of legitimate rebellion against the theocratic regime in Tehran, and thus providing covert or even overt military assistance through the CIA.
Furthermore, with respect to the aforementioned potential of independence in Bashur, will a President Trump support such a call, regardless of what the other regional governments with their own Kurdish populations think on the issue? For their part, it is clear that the KRG has hopes for Donald Trump, as immediately following his victory, Masrour Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Security Council tweeted that:
“I congratulate Donald Trump on being elected the next U.S. President. We hope the president-elect will increase support to the Peshmerga and the Kurdish people as the most reliable, effective and trusted ally in the war on terrorism.”
But how wide-reaching is his (and thus Trump’s) definition of the ‘Kurdish people’? As the Kurds number over 40 million and Kurdistan spreads across the four nations of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran; thus if the U.S. only supports one of the four legs of that proverbial ‘chair’, it won’t fully stand.
With all this in mind, I would recommend that all Kurdish people remain both cautious and cynically optimistic about what the U.S. and a President Trump can do for them, and perhaps they should trust that regardless of what happens, they will always have the mountains as friends.
This artcle written by Dr Thoreau Redrow was first published in the Kurdish Question