US support for certain Kurdish groups in both Syria and Iraq in recent years has largely been predicated on their capacity to combat the spread of Islamic State. With Islamic State now on the back foot in both countries, can Kurds continue to rely on US support?
In October 2017 the Kurds in Iraq saw their territorial gains of the last years dramatically reversed in a matter of days. After Islamic State captured large swathes of Iraq in 2014, Kurdish forces slowly started pushing them back, moving into areas outside of the official control of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) but over which the KRI had staked a claim. Kurds gradually increased the reach of the KRI into these areas, in March 2017, raising the Kurdish flag above public buildings in Kirkuk. But in mid-October, the Iraqi army made a sudden move on these areas, recapturing Kirkuk within little more than 24 hours, with KRI forces rapidly withdrawing. The line in the sand had been the KRI’s referendum 25 September on independence from Iraq, which most controversially, it had held in these disputed areas recaptured from Islamic State.
On word that Kirkuk had fallen to Baghdad, the mood in Erbil was sullen, striking a bitter contrast to the post-referendum elation of only 48 hours before. In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), many found themselves asking, ‘where was the US?’ The US, the defender of the KRI, the partner of the KRI’s peshmerga forces in their fight against Islamic State in Iraq. The US had expressed its clear opposition to the independence vote and did not seek to intervene to prevent Baghdad’s move on Kirkuk.
Meanwhile, across the border to the west in Syria, another group of Kurds have also been reliant on the US for military support and are wondering if this is about to change. Since 2014, the US has been providing substantial military support, weapons and training to the fighters of the People’s Defence Units (YPG) in their fight against Islamic State in north east Syria. The US’ support for the YPG has almost cost it an important ally in the region, Turkey. Turkey is deeply opposed to the US’ support for the YPG, because the group has close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that has been fighting the Turkish state for decades.
What does the US want?
Islamic State is clearly on the back foot in both Syria and Iraq and so with it the immediacy of the US’ need for Kurdish cooperation and the impetus to provide support. Does the US’ lack of support for Iraqi Kurds’ control of Kirkuk signal the beginning of a change in policy? The answer to this will rest in the US’s motives in the region and the long-term trajectory of the region.
In Iraq and Syria, the US is caught between a number of competing objectives in very approximate order of importance: the most pressing has clearly been to drive back Islamic State. At the same time, the US is concerned with ensuring Islamic State does not reappear. After this, the US wants to prevent Iran gaining more influence in the region. And finally, the US would like to see the capital ruled by a government that is friendlier to it. This final issue is far more of a concern in Syria, where the US is deeply opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Beyond this, maintaining its alliance with Turkey is also a concern for the US; something which only its support for Kurdish forces in Syria potentially jeopardises. Turkey has dallied with closer ties with Russia as a pointed threat to the US.
Now that Islamic State is close to being defeated, the US is considering how it will ensure stability remains in the region, preventing the re-emergence of Islamic State, at the same time preventing Iran’s influence from spreading, if possible removing Assad, and not losing Turkey to Russia in the process. So how where does its relation with the Kurds fits with these concerns? Is the US about to abandon the Kurds in Syria in order to make up with Turkey? Turkey’s foreign minister claimed on 16 November that the US had promised to stop supporting the People’s Defence Units (YPG), the most powerful Kurdish force in Syria. The White House issued a statement that it was reassessing partnerships in Syria. However, only days later the Pentagon issued a contradictory statement. Is the US changing policy?
What happened in Iraq?
Firstly, as to Iraq – there may be another reason why the US did not object to Iraqi forces moving on Kirkuk. In Iraq, the US likely sees supporting incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi over challenger and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as a way to prevent Iran from spreading. The US sees al-Maliki as closer to Iran. The US saw al-Abadi’s move to control Kirkuk as a means for him to consolidate his power. The US wanted al-Abadi to have a win and so made no objection nor put any pressure on al-Abadi’s forces’ move. The issue of recaptured territories was already a controversial one. This does not mean however that the US would have supported an encroachment into officially recognised KRI territory. Rather, the US saw allowing this concession as a means for stability in Iraq. After all, the US has already invested heavily in building up both the KRI’s military and economy. Good ties with the KRI also represent for the US a means of preventing Iranian expansion there.
And what is happening in Syria?
In Syria, ultimately, the question for the US in the short term is who is the best partner to ensure Islamic State does not re-emerge? Aside from the YPG, who could the US use on the ground to do this? Could the US potentially partner with anyone else to achieve its primary aim?
Realistically, Turkey is the best placed potential alternative partner for the US in Syria. What’s more, Turkey is already on the ground in Syria, with its forces now in parts of the provinces of Aleppo and more recently, Idlib. In the long-term, the US would arguably be more likely to want to have its joint operations in the hands of a NATO ally, rather than an armed force unrecognised by any state.
However, the Kurds may not have so much to fear. For one thing, relations between the US and Turkey are currently at a near-historic low. Mutual mistrust between the two allies is high, fuelled by a growing assertiveness on Turkey’s part. Secondly, the YPG has proved itself as a trusted partner – it is dependent on the US and thus pliable towards achieving the US’ ends and would likely remain so in the long-term. Turkey has its own international ambitions and the US may fear whether it can contain these. The US may be seeking to cultivate a permanent presence of its own through a in the region via an easily-controllable partner. In the carving-up of Syria to come, the US wants a stake.
Much will depend going forward on the changing dynamics between the many countries involved in slicing up and rearranging Syria. The region will likely continue to go through turbulence. The Kurds have ridden this wave for several years. Their luck may yet last. The Kurds in Syria are currently the darlings of the international stage and have developed a strong fighting force, all the while keeping ties to a number of different regional actors; for the US, another consideration will likely be not losing the allegiance of Syrian Kurds to another actor with interests in the region. Indeed, Russia is also partnering with the Kurds in Syria.
And the term ‘partnership’ is important: while the Kurds in Iraq have a romanticised view of their relationship with the US, hence the shock when the US did not appear to intervene over Kirkuk, the Kurds in Syria approach their relations with the US with far greater pragmatism. Indeed, they see it as a partnership, not as, some have said the Kurds in Iraq see it, as being the US’ property. The Kurds in Syria are aware of the fragility of their position. They have also witnessed the changing fortunes of their neighbours in Iraq. This means that if they feel let down by the US, they would throw their lot in with another power. By the same measure, the YPG is not the only Kurdish force in Syria, even if it is the most powerful. Dramatic shifts are still likely strategic corner of north east Syria even as the conflict in a more active sense appears to be winding down.
George Dyson is a political analyst.
Rebwar R. Salih holds an MSc in Government, Policy and Politics from the University of London and currently PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge.