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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
So what drew Washington’s attention to the Iraqi Kurds? First and foremost was Iraq’s placement on the Cold War chessboard. Following the 1968 Baath coup, Iraq had swung to the Soviet side. Somewhat paradoxically, the Soviets were quite supportive of Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and encouraged the Baathist leaders, President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and his strongman, Saddam, to negotiate a meaningful end to the Kurdish problem. In 1970, the two sides struck an agreement granting the Kurds autonomy, after which the Kurdish movement joined the Iraqi government in an alliance against the imperialist West.
That agreement did not last long, though, because Saddam was never interested in a genuine deal and the Kurds insisted on including the oil-rich Kirkuk province from the Kurdish autonomous region (the region’s status remains contentious today). By 1972, Barzani was pleading for the West, specifically the United States, help to fight Baghdad. When fighting between Baghdad and the Kurds did resume in 1974, the Soviets stood behind their Baathist friend. And Iran, one of the United States’ two pillars in the region, threw its weapons and political support behind the Kurds. In an effort to weaken the radical Iraqi Baathist regime, the United States was also instrumental in getting military aid to the Kurds.
In the words of the historian David McDowall, Barzani was “an innocent abroad” about U.S. and Iranian intentions; he did not understand that his new patrons were not in the least interested in Kurdish autonomy. Iran, for its part, wanted to extract concessions from Iraq, namely control of the Shat-al-Arab waterway, which Iraq granted it in the 1975 Algiers agreement. Once Saddam and the Shah signed the deal, Iranian support for the Kurds evaporated -- and so did the Kurdish rebellion. Barzani and many supporters left Iraq, exiled in Iran. Barzani had wrongly assumed that the United States would support the Kurds’ fight for some modicum of freedom from Baghdad’s clutches. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not think twice about that betrayal; as his aide Brent Scowcroft recalled years later, “it was just small potatoes.”
Barzani’s exile and the harsh Baathist crackdown only temporarily quelled the Kurdish revolt. Saddam, as the uncontested leader of Iraq after 1979, erred when he invaded Iran to take advantage of the turmoil following Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolution and reverse the concessions that Iraq had made to Iran in 1975. As Iran fought back, the war came to the Kurds. Kurdish peshmerga, as the group’s fighters are known, fought with Iran against Saddam. As the war’s tide turned against him, the Iraqi strongman resorted to the use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians, whom he did not trust.
The gassing of the town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan, which resulted in some 5,000 deaths over a couple of days, became a symbol of the Kurds’ fate. The Kurds might have hoped that their old ally, the United States, would come to their aid. But by that time, the United States had switched sides; it believed that Saddam was a lesser evil than Khomeini and supported him against Tehran, while remaining silent about Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. That gave Saddam the room to continue his genocidal campaign, dubbed Anfal, moving from Halabja to the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan.
WAR IN THE GULF
Less than two years later, Saddam invaded Kuwait and the United States switched sides again, launching a war to liberate the tiny kingdom. As part of the ceasefire agreement to end the war, Iraq agreed to refrain from using helicopters and other modern military equipment. But the George H. W. Bush government failed to enforce those terms, and Saddam turned his guns with impunity on Iraq’s Shia and Kurdish populations, who had once again rebelled against the central government. Over the course of a few weeks, more than one million Kurds fled to the mountainous regions of bordering Iran and Turkey.
Within a few weeks, the gruesome television images of starving and disease-ridden Kurdish civilians finally compelled Washington to act; it established a no-fly zone in northern Iraq and supplemented it with a small contingent of allied troops so that the Kurds could return to their homes. And thus started a new relationship between the United States and the Iraqi Kurds. Thanks to the allied, but mostly U.S. efforts, the Kurdish region remained safe from Saddam’s forces -- although divisions among the Kurds between the KDP and a rival party led by Jalal Talabani, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), often resulted in hostilities. Washington tirelessly tried to bring the two parties together, and its efforts culminated in an accord at the U.S. State Department in 1998. For the United States, a peaceful Kurdish region would help contain Saddam and would serve as a good base for U.S.-backed opposition efforts, such as the Iraqi National Congress.
The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq cemented ties between the United States and Iraq. Of all Iraqis, the Kurds were the only ones who wholeheartedly welcomed Saddam’s overthrow and actively cooperated with U.S. forces before and after the invasion. Whereas Sunnis and Shias later turned on the United States, to this day, the Kurds refer to the U.S. invasion as a “liberation.” They won their own autonomous status within a federal Iraq in 2005 and, in a powerful symbolic move, Talabani assumed the Iraqi presidency the same year. Until he suffered a stroke in 2012, Talabani proved adept at keeping the peace in Baghdad between the Sunnis and Shias and was, accordingly, respected in Washington and the region.
As Talabani’s health deteriorated, though, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki became increasingly autocratic, the United States found itself in a tough spot. On the one hand, it needed to support and get along with Maliki to deal with regional challenges. On the other hand, it needed to contain the disastrous consequences of Maliki’s reign and maintain Iraqi unity, to which it was always committed since it is loathe to see changes in traditional state boundaries in the Middle East that could upset already precarious geopolitical balances. Supported by an energy-hungry Turkey that was heavily invested in the KRG, Iraqi Kurds sought to develop their own oil and gas resources, which earned Baghdad’s ire. Iraq retaliated in early 2014 by cutting off funds to the KRG, which precipitated a financial crisis there. Maliki even fired all the Kurdish ministers in the cabinet. True to its history, Washington wanted to maintain its friendship with the Kurds, but refused to countenance any move that would undermine Iraq’s unity.
But then came ISIS, which faced little resistance from the Iraqi army as it marched through Iraq. The Kurds tried to fill the vacuum created by the fleeing Iraqi forces. However, overstretched and unprepared for ISIS attacks, the peshmerga, too, retreated from some critical locations, including the mainly Yezidi region of Sinjar. The resulting humanitarian catastrophe forced a reluctant Obama administration to intervene with air strikes.
There is no question that defeating ISIS is the first priority of the United States and that it can only be achieved through the reconstitution of the Iraqi army and the collaboration of the Kurdish forces. In the meantime, the United States is working in tandem with the Kurds to stop ISIS’ advance and secure critical infrastructure, such as Iraq’s largest dam, the Mosul Dam, which had fallen to ISIS in early August. Once again, therefore, Washington sees that it needs the Iraqi Kurds to salvage Iraq.
And, as usual, that policy is full of contradictions. The two main Iraqi Kurdish groups with which the United States is currently cooperating, the KDP and the PUK, are on its terrorism list. Granted, they are on the Tier III list, which, unlike Tier I and II, is not determined by the secretary of state, but rather by a Department of Homeland Security-related bureaucratic procedure devised during the introduction of the Patriot Act. Still, although the inclusion on this tier is of lesser gravity, it is nonetheless an embarrassment. KRG President Barzani even refused an invitation to the White House in early 2014. For its part, the U.S. government has not limited its collaboration with the KRG and its constituent parties because of its inclusion on the list. However, it did take more than six years for the United States to formally acknowledge the existence of the KRG by opening a consulate in Erbil in 2011, long after many other countries had done so.
So what does the future portend? The Iraqi Kurds are not about to declare independence; they are landlocked and in need of the revenues that come from Iraqi oil exports. Most importantly, they know that they cannot defeat ISIS on their own. Washington thus need not worry; a new prime minister in Baghdad will go a long way toward assuaging Kurdish fears and beginning the process of rebuilding Iraq. There are no guarantees, of course, but Washington has few other choices but to reengage in Iraq, and repair burned bridges with all of the country’s communities, including the Kurds. Although the Kurds are still wary of U.S. guarantees and promises, one thing has definitely changed: In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the momentous events in Syria, Iraq, and even the Turkish Kurdish areas, the Kurds are no longer “small potatoes,” as they will increasingly play a decisive role in shaping the new Middle East.