BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
In the never-ending saga of America’s military engagement in Iraq and Syria, a predictable series of events has occurred in the region, following the collapse of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham’s (ISIS) physical caliphate in the area: the victorious powers are jockeying for better geopolitical positioning. Specifically, the Turks have invaded the Kurdish areas of northern Syria, and have begun an armored push to deprive Kurds in the region any real chance of acquiring their own state. While this was an entirely avoidable fate, it would appear as though not only is the Trump Administration incapable of handling this situation, but more importantly, the Trump national security team appears unfazed by this sad turn of events.
Yet again, the American foreign policy establishment has turned its back on the Kurds long after the Kurds stood up for the United States and its allies in the region. While the Obama Administration was waxing ineloquent about ISIS being the “Jay-vee team” in 2014, and dithering over striking critical ISIS targets, the Kurds from northern Iraq and Syria were fighting for their lives–and serving up a nice dish of pain on the ISIS fanatics. Sure, they got some intelligence assistance, logistical and air support, and some U.S. Special Forces assistance, but for the most part, the Kurds defeated the Islamic State with sheer guts, will, and some small arms.
How did the United States repay the Kurds for their struggles on our behalf? We abandoned them. The Kurds have fought for American interests since Desert Storm, when they were called upon by the George H.W. Bush administration to rise up against Saddam Hussein. When the Kurds answered the call, the United States opted to negotiate a peace deal with Saddam, and looked the other way when those who were rising up in Iraq on our behalf were cut down by Saddam. Again, in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, the Kurds stepped up to assist in any way they could. The Kurds had long desired their own country, but they chose to stand with the United States, who inexplicably wanted to keep Iraq as a single state–when, in reality, it is at least three states that were forcibly rolled into one by greedy Anglo-French (and Russian) imperialists at the end of the First World War.
The Kurds in northern Iraq tried to make the American project in 2003 work. The first post-war leader of Iraq was a Kurd. Alas, the Kurds–no one, really, save for the Shiites–could make Iraq “work” (and the Shiites making Iraq “work” just meant that Iraq became a vassal of neighboring Iran). To compound the suffering of the Kurds, their region of the country has one of the wealthiest supplies of oil and natural gas–and the Shiite government in Iraq was demanding that they fork over a substantial share of their profits to Baghdad, just for the pleasure of being lorded over by the Iranian-backed government in Baghdad.
Then, around 2014, the Syrian Civil War spilled over into Iraq in the form of ISIS; tens of thousands of Kurds were displaced or massacred. The Kurds stood up and resisted. This inspired other Kurds in the region–particularly northern Syria–to rise up and resist also. Meanwhile, in Turkey, the country that has had the most problematic relations with the Kurds, the Kurds there began agitating for Turkey to intervene on behalf of their brethren being besieged by ISIS. But, that was not to be. Instead, the Turks–more concerned about Kurdish separatism in their own territory–chose to double-deal: they, at times, supported elements of ISIS engaged in combat against the Kurds whilst working with both the U.S-backed coalition against ISIS as well as the Russo-Iranian coalition fighting ISIS.
They’ve played their cards masterfully.
The choice for the United States is clear: either fully step forward and support Kurdish independence (at least in northern Iraq), or opt to rehabilitate the ailing ties with its long-time NATO partner, Turkey, by fully abandoning the Kurds. Currently, the Trump Administration appears to be dithering on what to do in this matter, hoping that the issue will sort itself out. Problem is, letting the pieces fall as they may in the region, will only destabilize the situation further, and will likely lead to a Russian and Iranian geostrategic victory by default. In other words, all of the blood and treasure the United States has expended in Iraq (and also Syria) will have been for naught, as the Iranians nearly complete their project for building a Shiite-dominated hegemony across the Middle East.
Now, given the Trump Administration correct worldview of “America First,” and wanting to create stability through a reliable balance-of-power globally, it would appear that the best course of action here would be to take the path of least resistance. The Washington establishment assumes that the best path, therefore, is to look the other way while Turkey crushes the dream of Kurdish independence. And, to be sure, the Kurds are a mess politically and economically they’ve been hit hard by years of war–despite having access to such a wealth of oil and natural gas. Also, Turkey is not only a long-standing NATO member–with access to advanced NATO military equipment and training–but it has recently purchased Russian defense systems to augment its capabilities (and to reduce its dependence on an increasingly dubious West). So, again, the appearance is that the Kurds don’t stand a chance in resisting the Turkish thrust through their territories. This all lends itself to the notion that the United States should just play Great State Politics and focus on the “bigger picture.”
But, the “bigger picture” does not entail buttressing Turkey’s claims. Right now, Turkey forms one leg of a four-legged table. As a state which sits on the geographical crossroads between the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, Turkey has found itself as a pivotal transit point for China’s budding Belt-and-Road Initiative. Further, the political headwinds in Turkey have permanently pushed Turkey away from the West, despite it retaining an important NATO membership. Ever since his rise to power, Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Erdogan has pushed that country increasingly toward Islamist autocracy. As time has progressed, and Turkey’s democratic institutions have been chipped away, Erdogan has become increasingly corrupt and brazenly hostile to the West–which he believes is engaged in an active conspiracy against his strongman rule (which we are not, though the West understandably refuses to support the rise of an Islamist strongman in such an important country like Turkey). Moreover, since the abortive coup attempt in the summer of 2015, Erdogan’s regime has been inimical to the West. President Erdogan (at least publicly) blames the West for being the source of this coup (again, the West was not the source of this coup).
Economic and political incentives have driven Turkey on a permanent path away from the West and toward the East. Turkey and China are solidifying their newfound appreciation for each other, as are the Russians for the Turks–something that is historically anathema. But, the Russians, like the Turks, Iranians, and several other countries, want desperately to partake in the fruits of China’s “New Silk Road.” For Turkey, then, the more that both Russia and China are opposed to the United States, the greater the pull away from the West. Besides, the continued soft-spot for the Kurds that multiple American administrations have shown, is a continual point of contention for Turkey. And, now that Turkey has realigned its interests with the Russo-Chinese dyad–with Iran now becoming a member of that triple alliance (with Turkey’s acceptance into that group making it a quartet)–for the United States to simply allow Turkey to run roughshod over that region would empower the Iranians, Russians, and even the Chinese.
The United States cannot stop the BRI from being built. It cannot prevent natural forces from moving Turkey into the Chinese, Russian, and Iranian camp. All that we can do is complicate things for these powers, and force them to deal with the United States on an equal footing. Therefore, preserving some balance-of-power in the Mideast that doesn’t hand the region over to Russia or China (through Iran and Turkey) is key. Ergo, the United States needs to bring about the creation of an independent Kurdistan to be used as an American-friendly buffer zone, preventing the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, and Turks from coalescing their power in the Middle East.
If the United States does not act quickly to ensure the creation of an independent, fully functional Kurdish state, then America’s geostrategic position will be permanently marred. Things will get worse, not better, for the United States and its allies, as Iran’s position is increased regionally, Israel’s position is fundamentally weakened; the Sunni Arab states begin building nuclear arsenals of their own, and Turkey continues manipulating events to help bring about its delusions of reconstituting the Ottoman Empire of old. Meanwhile, as this occurs, the Russians will replace the United States as the “offshore” balancer, and China’s path to global economic dominance will be cleared.