Diliman Abdulkader, co-founder of American Friends of Kurdistan, spoke to participants in a July 31 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the plight of Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and offered his recommendations for U.S. policy in each Kurdish territory.
All Kurdish communities "face discrimination from their central governments," but their specific circumstances vary.
The largest Kurdish population, numbering 20-25 million, resides in southeastern Turkey. Kurds in Turkey are denied "basic civil rights" and subjected to heavy-handed abuses by the military in its fight against "terrorist organizations and separatist movements." Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has jailed democratically elected members of parliament from the pro-Kurdish HDP party and removed elected officials in predominantly Kurdish regions, replacing them with Turks.
America should serve as a mediator and press Turkey into "peace talks with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK)," which has shelved its past pursuit of a separate Kurdish state and now seeks equal rights under the law. Abdulkader pointed out that "the State Department's continuous 'deeply concerned' rhetoric is not policy," as Turkey continues to be given a pass on its abuses.
In Syria, Kurds were similarly deprived of civil rights prior to the 2011 outbreak of civil war, during which they took control of Kurdish inhabited areas in the north and northeast of the country. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprised primarily of Kurds, has allied with the U.S. since 2015 to eliminate the ISIS caliphate. Within the nearly 30% of Syrian territory controlled by the SDF in partnership with the U.S. and others lies 80-90% of Syria's oil resources.
Despite sacrificing some 10,000 lives fighting ISIS, Syrian Kurds feel a sense of betrayal because of President Trump's decision to withdraw all but 600 or so U.S. troops from northern Syria and "greenlight" Erdoğan's invasion of Kurdish-controlled Syrian land in October 2019. If America wants a stable Syria, the U.S. should at least keep its remaining troops stationed in northeast Syria and press Turkey to leave. The U.S. has a "responsibility ... as a global power" to be involved in Syria to prevent adversaries such as Russia, Iran, and Turkey from filling the vacuum. Abdulkader warned that a return to pre-2011, when the Assad regime controlled the northeast, should serve as "an automatic red line for the international community."
The U.S. has a "responsibility ... as a global power" to be involved in Syria.
"The military partnership is still strong," but America should "translate [it] into a political partnership." The "best option" for the U.S. is to recognize the northeast Syrian territory as an "autonomous region ... similar to what [it] did for the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq following the first Gulf war in 1991" and recognize the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF and the de facto regional governing body, as the "legitimate government in northeast Syria." A recent deal signed between the Kurds and the U.S. to modernize oil facilities in northeast Syria is a "significant" step in this direction, said Abdulkader.
Iraqi Kurds enjoy the most freedom and security of any Kurdish community due their autonomous status, which is recognized both internationally and under the current Iraqi constitution. Abdulkader advises the U.S.to invest in a "permanent position" in Kurdistan by establishing military bases in northern Iraq. America has sacrificed 4,500 troops and $2 trillion in Baghdad only to see multiple Iraqi governments fail. Since 2014, Iraqi Kurds, pro-Western and pro-American, have proven to be America's strongest military ally in the fight against ISIS, having lost some 2000 lives. Iraq's Kurds have also maintained sub rosa military and intelligence cooperation with Israel. Although the relationship is "mostly covert" due to regional politics, it has strong historical roots – Iraqi Kurds assisted Iraq's Jews when they left the country for Israel after its independence in 1948.
Abdelkader said the U.S. should engage the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in assisting with institution building. Under the National Defense Authorization Act, the U.S. provides a "blank check" to the two entities in power, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [each of which is led by a clan with the backing of the armed forces]. Instead, the U.S. should make aid conditional. Accordingly, the $250-300 million in annual U.S. aid should be predicated on the KRG putting its "houses in order" and holding "those who are entangled in corruption and nepotism accountable."
The Iranian regime, like that of Turkey, imprisons Kurds "for their political positions." In 2018, Kurds accounted for "30% of the executions inside Iran." The 2019 protests resulted in 1,500 Kurds killed during the "crackdown" because the regime sees the large Kurdish population, "the most organized and armed group inside Iran," as "the biggest threat." The goal for Iran's Kurds, like Kurds across the region, is autonomy.
A "state of their own" is the only way to provide "long-term security" for the Kurds.
Abdulkader believes that from a strategic vantage point, "if the United States wants to continue 'maximum pressure' on Iran, the best place to do so is in the Kurdistan region." The 12 million Kurds in Iran, also pro-Western, pro-American and pro-Israel, are in a precarious position there and supportive of America's campaign.
Abdulkader argued that "a state of their own" is the only way to provide "long-term security" for the Kurds, much as it provided security for Jews and Armenians. What the United States can realistically do in the shorter-term "to get away from the status quo" varies from country to country. In Turkey, protecting the civil rights of Kurds should be the immediate goal, whereas in Syria and Iran Kurdish regional autonomy should be the goal.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.