On-Again, Off-Again Alliance

The History of Washington and the Kurds

A Kurdish peshmerga soldier holds a Kurdistan flag during a deployment near the northern Iraqi border with Syria, August 6, 2012
A Kurdish peshmerga soldier holds a Kurdistan flag during a deployment near the northern Iraqi border with Syria, August 6, 2012. (Azad Lashkari / Courtesy Reuters)

Abandoned and almost forgotten, Molla Mustapha Barzani, the legendary Kurdish nationalist leader and father of Masoud Barzani, the current president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), died in 1979 in Washington, where he had traveled for cancer treatment. For the Kurds, Barzani’s sad end was emblematic. Having entrusted their fate to the Americans and Iranians during their bitter struggle against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1970s, they found themselves deserted and betrayed by their patrons by 1975.

Much has changed in the intervening 40 years. Saddam is gone, overthrown by a U.S.-led invasion, and Iraqi Kurds enjoy unprecedented freedom within their federal region. To defend that region’s borders and population, the United States even launched air strikes recently against the Sunni militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also called the Islamic State (IS).

The story of the U.S.–Kurdish relationship is more than just one of a superpower and a beleaguered minority in Iraq. For one, Kurds also live in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, and have rebelled against the governments of all of those countries. Sometimes, they cooperate among themselves, but more often they collaborate with the very same state authorities that mistreat and repress their brethren across the border. Yet Iraqi Kurds, it seems, are the only ones to ever win U.S. military help. In the years after World War I and throughout its republican history, Turkey violently suppressed and tried to forcibly assimilate its Kurdish population. It rarely heard criticism from the United States. In Iraq and Syria, meanwhile, Great Britain and France went about creating their own colonial states again without much regard for different ethnic sensitivities.

Geography and realpolitik have been cruel to the Kurds. Divided among four countries, they have been easy prey for anyone willing to engage in mischief and machinations -- and engage the United States has.

COLD WAR CALCULATIONS

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