US foreign policy towards the Iraqi Kurds

2 years agoANALYSIS

By Hawre Hasan Hama

US foreign policy towards the Kurds, in particular, the Iraqi Kurds falls within the frame of US foreign policy towards nonstate actors as the Kurds do not have a state of their own. As a result, the relationship between the US and the Kurds, especially in the previous century, has been informal and tactical rather than fixed, strategic and formal. The association has changed in line with the changing state and events of the Middle East more widely. The reason for this is that the Americans have chosen to change their relationship with the Kurds in line with their intentions and national interests during different periods, and to meet the requirements of new situations. In most cases, the Kurds have been a tool for the US to implement its strategic aims in the Middle East rather than a friend or ally.
On the other hand, the Iraqi Kurds have dealt with the US pragmatically and utilised the relationship to serve their intentions, political aims and security needs. What is more, the Kurds have not always sided with the US. This article discusses US foreign policy towards the Iraqi Kurds by concentrating on whether the existence of a US foreign policy towards the Kurds is more active during Democratic party administrations or Republican party administrations? Put another way, are there any indications which of these political parties are better for the Kurds? Or is US foreign policy towards the Kurds dependent on regional dynamics and not on which political party is governing? This research divides US foreign policy towards the Kurds into seven distinct stages. Its central argument is that US foreign policy towards the Iraqi Kurds has mostly been dependent on changing regional dynamics, particularly on the changing nature of the US relationship with Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria, and not the different political parties. There is no evidence to suggest the Democrats have been better for the Kurds than the republicans. While some of the most significant setbacks for the Kurds were during Republican administrations, their two most essential strides forward were also during Republican administrations.   

US Foreign Policy Towards the Kurds: Stages
First stage: Post-World War One
This stage goes back to the post-World War One period, precisely to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen-point program, which he delivered to Congress in a speech in 1918 calling for the right of minorities to self-determination, especially for the Kurds. For example, the 12th point reads, “The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under the Ottoman rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development.” In addition, Wilson called for the right to self-determination for minority populations. This speech provided support for Kurdish demands for self-determination. The Kurds were promised independence in the post-war Treaty of Sevres, which was not fulfilled in the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne. Instead, the Kurdish population of the former Ottoman Empire were parcelled out to Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. That said, the US role in the international failure to fulfil the promise of the first treaty was minor; instead, the crushing blow to Kurdish dreams of independence came on the back of Britain and France reaching an agreement with Turkey. In the stages that followed, as discussed in the latter sections, US foreign policy towards the Kurds has been dependent on its relations with Turkey, Iran and Iraq. (1)

Second stage: Post-World War Two
In 1939 Iran declared its neutral stance in the Second World War, which was acceptable to Britain. However, due to the threat posed to the interests of Britain and the Soviet Union by the German influence in Iran, in 1941, the Soviet Union and Britain invaded Iran. The collapse of the Iranian army was an opportune moment to reorganise and to fill the void left by the military. The rivalry between Britain and the US and their opposition to the Soviet Union’s presence in Iran led to the Soviet Union providing assistance to Kurdish forces of Iran. In 1945 Harry Truman became US President, following the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Truman feared Soviet expansionism in Iran and believed they could not be trusted. As a result, Truman adopted a “firm policy” against the Soviet Union. Fearing that there was a plan on the part of the US and Britain to oust the Soviet Union from Iran, the Soviets responded by providing support to Kurdish forces in Iran.
The collapse of the Iranian army and the Soviet Union’s provision support resulted in the Kurds of Iran and Iraq, establishing a Kurdish republic (the Mahabat Republic) in 1946. However, the continued disagreements and rivalries between the US and the Soviet Union, the US filing complaints against the Soviet Union at the United Nations for interfering in the affairs of another sovereign state and other pressures resulted in the Soviet Union reaching an agreement with the Iranian government to withdraw Soviet forces from Iran and to stop its support for the Kurdish forces. In return, Iran allowed companies in the Soviet Union to invest in the Iranian oil industry. The Soviet Union, under pressure from the UN subsequently withdrew its forces from Iran in May 1946 and stopped its support to the Kurds. As a result, the Iranian army recaptured the fledgeling Kurdish republic and with it ended the first experiment of Kurdish self-rule. During this period, although Truman was a Democratic President, his decisions on the Kurdish issue were motivated by the international politics of the moment. Put another way, the US objection to Soviet support for the Kurds was in respect to US strategic aims of weakening the Soviet Union in Iran and maintaining Iran’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. (2) In short, during this stage, it was the changes in international politics that influenced US policy towards Iran and the Kurds, it had little to do with the political party of the US administration.  

Third stage: The Cold War
In this stage, Iraq was governed by a west leaning monarchy. During this period, the US wanted Iraq to remain in the western camp and not join with the Soviet Union or become a zone for Soviet influence. As a result, the US viewed the Kurdish issue in Iraq as an internal matter that needed to be resolved within the country and not through foreign interference. By the 1950s the US had good relations and communications with the Iraqi monarchy, but limited contact with the Kurds. After the collapse of the Iraqi Monarchy, the Iraqi Republicans took power in the country in 1958. While the new Iraqi government initially tried to resolve the Kurdish issue in Iraq peacefully, by 1961 these attempts had failed as the Mala Mustafa Barzani began his Kurdish revolution against the Iraqi state. During this period, the US was not willing to assist Barzani as it stood against its Iraq policy, which was to maintain friendly relations. The US position became further in entrenched as it has suspicions the Barzani was firmly in the communist camp as he had previously spent 11 years in the Soviet Union. Here, it is essential to note that during this period, the US president was John Kennedy, a democrat. However, his political background was not a factor in his policy towards the Kurds of Iraq.
When the Iraqi Ba’ath party took power in Iraq in 1968, the US administration led by President Lyndon Johnson had a good relationship with the Ba’ath party as the party was anti-Soviet Union. Although Barzani requested US support against the Iraqi Ba’ath party, the US democratic party administration under Johnson, was not willing to oblige. However, in the early 1970s US foreign policy towards the Kurds under then-President Richard Nixon, a Republican, changed, to one of support for Barzani’s revolution against the Iraqi government. This shift occurred for the following reasons:
The Iranian Shah was considered a US ally and friend;
Iraq joined the Soviet Union camp;
Iraq viewed Isreal as an enemy state and pursued hostile policies towards it.

From here, the Kurds became the “the good Kurds” in US foreign policy and Richard Nixon, US national security advisor to President Henry Kissinger, supported the Barzani revolt against the Iraqi government. During this period, US foreign policy towards the Kurds followed two distinct directions. On the one hand, it provided financial and military support to the Kurds against the Iraqi government, and on the other, it attempted to restore its relationship with the Iraqi government. Hence, there were two reasons for US support for the Kurds during this period. First, US support for the Barzani-led Kurdish revolution resulted from the breakdown of its relationship with the Iraqi government. Second, the provision of financial and military support for the Kurds was at the request of the Shah of Iran to weaken the Iraqi government as Iran was engaged in a bitter rivalry with Iraq and its leader Saddam Hussein.

However, following the signing of the Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq, the US administration led by President Gerald Ford turned its back on the Kurds and ended all financial and military support to them, which ultimately led to the collapse of the Barzani revolution. What is important to note here is that the initial support provided by the US republican administration and the subsequent withdrawal of support was not the result of the administration’s political party ideology, which was also republican, but the result of political realities in the region. As mentioned earlier, the initial decision to provide US support for the Kurds was at the request of the Iranian Shah and spurred by poor US relations with the Iraqi government. (3)

After the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the relationship between the US and Iran became adversarial. Iran’s relationship with Iraq also collapsed and resulted in an eight-year war which began in 1980. In this war, the Iraqi Kurds chose to ally with Iran. Iran responded by provided military and financial support to the Kurds in their struggle against Baghdad. During this stage, the Republican administration in the US-led by Ronald Reagan, between 1981 and 1988, did not support the Iraqi Kurds. On the contrary, during the Reagan administration because it became subject to two of the biggest crises, the chemical attack on Halabja and the Anfal campaign. The reason for this was that the Regan administration was of the belief that the Islamic Revolution in Iran presented a significant threat to the interests of the US and its Arab allies, in particular to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Stage Four: Post-Cold War
After Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, then-Republican US President George Bush gave a speech in which he encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against the Iraqi governing regime of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Kurds interpreted George Bush’s message as support for their revolution and an uprising against the government of Saddam Hussein, in that the US would provide support if they rebelled. However, when the Iraqi Kurds rose up, the US once again turned its back on the Kurds, citing the preservation of Iraq’s territorial integrity. As a result, Saddam Hussein was able to suppress the Kurdish uprising resulting in the displacement to Turkey and Iran of millions of Kurdish residents of Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s response to the Kurdish revolt resulted in a humanitarian disaster. Representatives from Turkey, Iran and France sent a joint letter to the United Nations detailing the dire situation of the Kurdish refugees. In response, the United Nations Security Council passed UN resolution 688, which condemned the suppression of Iraqi civilians, in particular in Iraq’s Kurdish regions. The resolution demanded an immediate end to the humanitarian disaster. In April 1991, the United States, the UK and France, began military operations against the Iraqi government and successfully established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. The actions culminated in the creation of an official Kurdish body in Iraq, which was until then the most significant step the Kurds had taken in the 20th century towards self-determination. US support and protection for the Kurds continued until the collapse of the Iraqi regime in 2003. 

Stage Five: The collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime
After the creation of the safe-haven over northern Iraq, the Bill Clinton Democratic party administration in the US continued their support the Iraqi Kurds and their attempts to unify against the threat posed by the Iraqi regime. The US willingness to provide support to the Iraqi Kurds was in line with their broader strategy of containing Saddam Hussein. In 2001 the US republican administration of George W Bush decided to go to war with Iraq and to collapse the Saddam Hussein regime. The removal of the Saddam regime and its replacement with a federal democracy can be characterised as two of the greatest strides forward for the Kurdish issue in Iraq as it was the first time in history that the Kurdish issue received a legal framework. It was the first time that the Kurdish entity in Iraq, received national, regional and international recognition. The war also ushered in a change to the nature of the relationship between the Kurds and the US as the Iraqi Kurds were from then on regarded as US strategic allies and friends. (5)
After the collapse of the Iraqi regime and its replacement with a federal democracy, the US has continued to emphasise that Iraq must remain a federal state and as remained a protectorate of the model. It has supported the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as a legitimate federal region of Iraq. (6) However, this shift in US foreign policy towards the Kurds was the result of a changing US strategy towards Iraq. The Kurds found themselves in a lucky position when the Bush administration characterised the Iraqi regime as a threat to US interests in the region. (7)

Stage Six: The rise of the Islamic State (IS):
The rise of IS and the threat it posed to the security and stability of the region due to its barbarism, led to the US once again providing support to the Iraqi Kurds to confront the group. In 2014, IS was able to invade and capture large swathes of northern Iraq and thus became a threat to both the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the Iraqi Federal Government. As a result, the then-Democratic US administration of Barack Obama decided to intervene militarily as part of a broader international coalition. The US decision came on the back of the IS’s massacre of the Iraqi Yezidi population in August 2014. This decision led to the Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, partnering militarily with the US and its international coalition to push back and dismantle IS. The success of the Kurdish forces, which were supported by coalition airpower, resulted in substantial international support for the Kurds and the Peshmerga. The US continued its cooperation and support for the Kurds until the day of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s independence referendum. 

Stage Seven: Abandoning of the Kurds
The immense international support received by the Kurds and the Peshmerga forces influenced the Kurdish leaderships decision to hold an independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2017. Regardless of unanimous calls by the international community to refrain from having the vote, the Kurdish leadership held the vote on 25 September 2017. Prominent US researcher, Morgan Kaplan, wrote an article in Ethnopolitics magazine, in which he discusses that the Kurdish leadership was misled by the US provision of support to them. The Kurdish leadership mistakenly believed that holding the independence vote will not result in the loss of the international support that they had received during the fight against IS. After an overwhelming “Yes” vote to independence, the Iraqi government began a set of national sanctions against the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which saw the closure of Iraqi Kurdistan’s airports and borders. In October 2017, the Iraqi government, with the support of its Shia Militias, began military operations against the Peshmerga to retake control of the Iraqi disputed territories, which the Kurds has wrestled off IS between 2014 and 2017. (8) On 16 October 2017, the Iraqi government successfully retook the Iraqi disputed territories from the Kurds. The US administration under Republican President Donald J Trump announced that they would remain neutral between The Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi Federal Government. The silence of the International community, especially the United States, at the Iraqi government’s land grab shocked the Kurdish leadership. (9) The US decision to allow Baghdad to attack the Kurds was once again interpreted as another US betrayal against the Kurds. (10) However, the US decision to not support Kurdish independence was the result of several other factors. First, the division of Iraq was not part of the US strategy for Iraq. On the contrary, the US-supported and continues to support the territorial integrity and peaceful unity of the Iraqi state. Second, any US support for Kurdish separatism would have had a negative impact on US relations with Turkey on the one hand and would have further degraded US and Iran’s relationship. Third, due to the war with IS, the US believed that supporting the Kurdish independence bid would have changed the focus of some of the coalition members away from IS and allowed the group space to reemerge. Hence, to the US the Kurdish independence referendum was not acceptable as, on the one hand, the timing was inappropriate, and on the other, they believed it would result in greater insecurity and instability in the region. 

US foreign policy towards the Iraqi Kurds has always been influenced by US foreign policy towards Iraq, Iran and Turkey. It can be argued that the changing of governance in the US between Democrat and Republican administrations has not been an influencing factor on its Kurdistan policy. As discussed in the article, the Iraqi Kurds were subject to crises during both democrat and republican administrations. During Republican administrations, the Iraqi Kurds were subject to massacres and chemical bombings. However, under the governance of the same party the Kurds were also able to take their most significant strides forward, “the establishment of a safe haven, the formation of an official Iraqi Kurdish body, the collapse the Iraqi Baath party regime and change the political system in Iraq from dictatorship to a federal democracy”. Hence, it can be argued that regional changes, in particular changes in the nature of the US relationship with Iraq, Iran and Turkey, influences greatly on US policy towards the Kurdish issue in the Middle East, in particular the plight of the Iraqi Kurds.  

THE FOURTEEN POINTS: Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. Rejection of the Treaty of Versailles,, Treaty of Sèvres Allies-Turkey [1920], , see also Treaty of Lausanne Allies-Turkey [1923], See also Every US president listed Complete list of US presidents from George Washington up to Barack Obama, with party and year inaugurated,
Eshraghi, F. (1984). Anglo‐Soviet occupation of Iran in August 1941. Middle Eastern Studies, 20(1), 27-52. Soviets announce withdrawal from Iran, see also Roosevelt Jr, A. (1947). The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. The Middle East Journal, 247-269. See also Every US president listed Complete list of US presidents from George Washington up to Barack Obama, with party and year inaugurated,
Bryan R. Gibson. 2019. The Secret Origins of the U.S.-Kurdish Relationship Explain Today’s Disaster,, see also Gibson, B. R. (2015). Nixon and the Kurdish Intervention: August 1972–October 1973. In Sold Out? US Foreign Policy, Iraq, the Kurds, and the Cold War (pp. 143-161). Palgrave Macmillan, New York. See also Every US president listed Complete list of US presidents from George Washington up to Barack Obama, with party and year inaugurated,
İsmail, S. A. R. I. (2019). The United States Foreign Policy Towards Kurds. Ortadoğu Etütleri, 11(2), 278-299. Gunter, M. M. (1993). A de facto Kurdish state in Northern Iraq. Third World Quarterly, 14(2), 295-319. Koshy, N. (1996). The United Nations, the US and Northern Iraq. Economic and Political Weekly, 2760-2765. See also Every US president listed Complete list of US presidents from George Washington up to Barack Obama, with party and year inaugurated,
Gunter, M. M. (2011). The Five Stages of American Foreign Policy towards the Kurds. Insight Turkey, 13(2).
Shukri, N. A. (2017). Explaining US Foreign Policy Towards Kurdistan Region of Iraq (2003-2015) (Doctoral dissertation, University of Leicester).
Hughes, B. (2007). Securitizing Iraq: The Bush Administration's Social Construction of Security. Global Change, Peace & Security, 19(2), 83-102.
Hama, H. H., & Jasim, D. (2017). The loss of disputed territories: What is next for the Kurdistan region?. Middle East, 21(2), 59.
Mansour, R. (2017). How the Kurds Helped Draw the United States Back to Iraq. Carnegie Middle East Center. See also Hama, H. H. (2019).
What Explains the Abandonment of Yezidi People by the Kurdish Forces in 2014? Foreign Support or Internal Factors. Ethnopolitics, 1-22.
Kaplan, M. L. (2019). Foreign support, miscalculation, and conflict escalation: Iraqi Kurdish self-determination in perspective. Ethnopolitics, 18(1), 29-45. Phillips, D. L. (2018). The great betrayal: How America abandoned the Kurds and lost the Middle East. Bloomsbury Publishing.

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