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Why the U.S. backed the Kurds

- September 9, 2014

An Iraqi Kurdish pesh merga fighter on the front line in Khazer, 40 km West of Irbil, August 14, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMEDSAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
The initiation of military support for Iraq’s Kurds and airstrikes in northern Iraq have marked an important turn in U.S. foreign policy. Although military support for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remains limited, arming the Kurds represents a serious change in U.S.-Kurdish relations and appears to conflict with previous U.S. policy in Iraq. In particular, direct military and political support for the KRG will strengthen Irbil’s position vis-à-vis the central government in Baghdad, and thus may perpetuate the process of political fragmentation unfolding in Iraq. How do we account for this new shift in U.S. policy toward Iraqi Kurdistan?
This summer, I was in Iraqi Kurdistan studying how the Kurdish liberation movement has used international diplomacy to solicit third-party support over the past four decades. While in the Kurdish capital of Irbil from June through the onset of U.S. airstrikes in early August, I had the opportunity to research Kurdish appeals for external support at a time of momentous change in both Kurdish foreign policy and international aid to the region.
Some analysts believe that concerns over a humanitarian crisis motivated the shift in U.S. policy to arm the Kurds, while others argue that the Islamic State had simply become an unbearable threat to U.S. interests in the region. It seems clear that humanitarian concerns were an important factor in U.S. decision-making, along with the revelation that the Islamic State was comparatively more powerful and menacing to Kurdish forces than in the months preceding. However, the Islamic State offensive through northwest Iraq had already wrought humanitarian disaster long before the attacks on Yazidis in Sinjar in early August, and fears over the Islamic State were just as real in mid-June as today. Others have pointed to the threat to U.S. oil and business interests in Irbil – an argument that carries serious weight, but likely does not capture the core of U.S. decision-making.
Instead, what appears to have changed between mid-June and early August was a newfound alignment of Kurdish and U.S. interests in Iraq. From the Kurdish standpoint, fears of further setbacks at the hands of the Islamic State made the Kurds increasingly willing to ally with Baghdad and shift their military strategy from defending Kurdistan to crushing the broader threat to Iraq by the Islamic State. Once the front line against the Islamic State shifted from Baghdad to Irbil and Iraqi forces began cooperating with the Kurds, arming the Kurds was no longer a break from U.S. interests to preserve a stable and united Iraq. Instead, the Kurds had become integral to saving Baghdad.
This argument finds support in the growing literature on third-party support for rebel groups, which cites the alignment of the third-party and armed group’s strategic objectives as one of the critical factors behind external support. Effective marketing and diplomacy by these groups are ways in which they make such strategic overlap known to potential sponsor states. Therefore, changing strategic goals and Kurdish framing of those goals may have contributed to the United States’ decision to directly support the pesh merga.
Based on the existing literature and my experiences in Iraqi Kurdistan, the origins of U.S. support for the Kurds lie in the Islamic State’s Aug. 3 assault on Sinjar. The attack and subsequent events allowed for the convergence of U.S.-Kurdish interests, as well as a noticeable change in how the Kurds framed their pitch for external support.
Prior to the August assault, Kurdish appeals to the West were based on the following argument: Kurdistan is a uniquely strong, stable, and democratic house in a militarily weak, unstable and authoritarian neighborhood. Since Iraqi fragmentation is inevitable and Kurdistan is the only viable (and importantly, pro-American) political entity in Iraq, then the United States should support Kurdish defensive positions and aspirations. Furthermore, an independent Kurdistan – bolstered by the necessary funds and arms – could serve as a moderating force or buffer state in the region. One Kurdish official – prior to the attack on Sinjar – used the term “positive neutrality” to describe Kurdistan’s pitched foreign policy.
However, this appeal by the Kurds did not offer what the United States needed at the time: An ally on the ground to help combat the Islamic State and keep the Iraqi state from further disintegration. Instead of declaring war on the Islamic State, the Kurds attempted to justify what was for them a wise policy: To fill emerging power vacuums, dig in their defenses and try to avoid being sucked into direct confrontation with any of the belligerents. The policy had been prudent from the Kurdish standpoint but appeared uncooperative from a U.S. perspective. Not only was the most effective fighting force in Iraq pledged to the sidelines (although Kurdish forces did engage with the Islamic State on nearly a daily basis along its borders), but fresh announcements from KRG President Masoud Barzani that the Kurds would begin the process of formalizing independence were viewed as contributing to Iraq’s political unraveling. Thus, at this point, it is not surprising that despite the Kurds best diplomatic efforts, their appeals for Western support largely came up empty.
The fresh IS offensive in early August initiated a convergence of U.S. and Kurdish goals, as well as a change in the Kurdish pitch for support. The fall of Sinjar was a military and psychological surprise in Kurdistan. Not only did the attack mark the first time that Kurdish-held territory was ceded to the Islamic State, it also seemingly shattered the narrative of Kurdistan’s neutrality and (most importantly) invincibility. Responding to the bold assault, Kurdish officials immediately proclaimed a declaration of war on the Islamic State and called for external assistance in Kurdistan’s forward assault. In subsequent meetings I had with Kurdish officials that week, the narrative of Kurdish strategic goals was no longer one of active defense, but of offense.
As attempts to reclaim territory proved to be more difficult than anticipated, media outlets announced that Irbil would begin working with Baghdad to counter the Islamic State. Kurdish pesh merga (and less publicly, PKK forces) would assault the Islamic State from the ground, while the Iraqi air force would provide aerial support. The Kurds would become the centerpiece of a new cross-regional military strategy to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq. Both the Kurds’ willingness to cooperate with Baghdad, and the view that helping the pesh merga meant helping Iraq as a whole created a window of opportunity for the United States to support the Kurds without completely undermining its preferences for a stable, centralized Iraq. For the time-being Irbil and Baghdad would ally, but this time it was Irbil, not Baghdad that would hold the “center of gravity.”
The second – and more critical – shock came only a few days after the loss of Sinjar, when reports surfaced that the Islamic State was advancing on Irbil and surrounding cities. Although few in Irbil feared that the Islamic State forces could reach the city limits – let alone enter Irbil – the assault threatened to knock the new military alliance off-balance. It is unclear what was discussed among U.S. and Kurdish officials during this critical time, but at least publicly, the tone of Kurdish appeals had changed. The Kurds were no longer asking for weapons to protect their neutral enclave. Instead, they were asking for support to avert a humanitarian crisis, and more importantly, to defeat the Islamic State as a threat to both Kurdish and U.S. interests. It was at this point – after a rapid convergence of U.S.-Kurdish interests and the subsequent threat to those interests – that the United States decided to directly support the Kurds, despite weeks of reluctance.
U.S. fears that Irbil would use its new position of power to further destabilize Iraq were likely assuaged by the belief that such actions would be equally detrimental to stability in Kurdistan. Although appearing counter-intuitive at first, Kurdish politicians are able to discuss Kurdish autonomy and the need to build a strong Iraq in one breath. The logic is rather simple and has been discussed in some detail. The Kurds are acutely aware that they live in a dangerous neighborhood. One of the best ways to create a successful transition away from Iraq is to ensure that Iraq – which shares Kurdistan’s longest border – is internally secure and unthreatened by an independent Kurdistan. Of course, it is extremely unlikely that Baghdad would ever support Kurdish independence. However, a stable and democratic Iraq – especially one whose leaders are conscious of the Kurds’ contribution to its success – would be less likely to go to war over the split. (The intuitions behind this strategy are consistent with contemporary research on what makes states more or less likely to resist secession). Furthermore, the Kurds see Iraqi federalism as the logical intermediary step before outright independence. As such, the Kurds have likely assured Western backers that they would not use increasing military aid to destabilize Iraq but to strengthen it.
An important counter-factual to consider is whether the United States would have provided arms to the pesh merga and carried out airstrikes in Iraqi Kurdistan if Irbil had not become central to Iraq’s general security only days prior, or if it had not changed its pitch for support to align with U.S. interests in the region. For example, one could point to the general effectiveness of Kurdish lobbying in Washington as an independent source of success. The Kurds do indeed have a well-established network of lobbyists, public relations firms and political allies in Washington, as well as seasoned diplomats who are familiar with the city’s political terrain. However, it is unlikely that such powerful lobbying alone would have been effective in the absence of the new strategic alignment between Irbil and the United States, and the subsequent change in Kurdish framing. After all, the Kurdish lobbying network has been in place for years but was unable to persuade a change in policy in the weeks and months prior.
Although details of the decision-making process remain limited, the onset of direct support for the Kurds on Aug. 7 is indeed a significant event and will likely alter the landscape of Iraqi politics for years to come. The main question that remains is how this policy change will affect the Kurdish strategy for independence if the Islamic State is effectively neutralized in Iraq. Will the Kurds reclaim their position as king-makers and power-brokers in a post-Nouri al-Maliki Iraq, or will they emerge from the crisis ready to proclaim an independent state? Despite the real hardships that continue to face Kurds and Iraqis alike, the Kurds have largely gained from the political crisis and most Iraqi Kurds agree that the time has never been riper to complete their path to independence. It is unclear if the United States will support future Kurdish aspirations, but for now the Kurds have won the type of assistance they have long sought.
Morgan L. Kaplan is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago. A Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) travel grant contributed to the research for and writing of this article.