What Is Trump's Policy Toward the Kurds? Does He Have One?

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

The Kirkuk crisis seems largely over.

With the exception of a pocket here or there, Iraq has regained areas lost or abandoned in 2014, while the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) retains control of those regions which the Iraqi constitution assigns it.

Stripping away the propaganda, polemics, and disinformation of the past week, what happened is clear: Masoud Barzani overstepped.

He might have compromised, but he spurred all offers in his own nationalist frenzy and efforts to distract from the political and economic malaise which his dictatorship had wrought. He forced a confrontation, and he lost. It's that simple. Had he compromised, Kurds would still retain daily control over disputed areas in Diyala, Nineva, and Kirkuk. The decision and responsibility for it was Barzani and Barzani's alone. There was no 1975-style betrayal, for the United States was very transparent in what would happen.

So what happens next with regard to US policy toward the Kurds?

US policy must be cognizant of the complexity of the region. While it's easy to be sympathetic to the Kurdish narrative, there should be some soul-searching for those who took part in KRG propaganda tours and only now are surprised by what Kurds and regional minorities say when freed from the watchful eyes of Kurdish militias and intelligence.

Iraqi army artillery on a road southwest of Kirkuk on October 17, 2017. Iraqi forces took control of the two largest oil fields in the disputed northern province of Kirkuk demolishing Kurdish hopes of creating a viable independent state. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty

Barzani is an illegitimate leader. Under Kurdish law, his term in office expired more than two years ago.

The State Department and Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk erred by continuing to engage him. They may have thought it was easier to engage a dictator than deal with a more complex Kurdish political landscape, but they were wrong.

By law, Yousif M. Sadiq, the speaker of parliament, should be recognized by Washington as Iraqi Kurdistan's interim president until elections can be organized. Those elections should be organized by a commission independent in more than just its name and observed professionally by credible groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Carter Center, or the National Democratic Institute, among others.

Prior to the September 25 referendum, the KRG and its proxies in Washington and London invited former officials, thinktankers and academics to "observe" the referendum and promised that all expenses would be covered by the KRG. Most smartly demurred and stayed home.

They were right. I saw some of the invitations and the proposed schedule: They included just about two hours of observation at hand-picked voting centers but were heavy on meetings with KDP bigwigs and entertainment. That sort of nonsense delegitimizes neutral observation; it is frankly what dictatorships do, not democracies.

When new elections occur, it is time for Kurdish leaders to address an issue they have ignored for 25 years: Do the properties in which top leaders live belong to the individuals, parties, or government? Let us hope that it is the latter.

What this means is that if Barzani steps down, he should vacate his palace and his mountaintop complex in Sar-e Rash. Let him purchase a house in Erbil but, if he doesn't want to mix with ordinary Kurds, then let him return to his village or go abroad.

His father once fled to Moscow but Barzani may prefer Turkey or Dubai. Frankly, it is long past time the KRG abandoned its mountaintop complex, once a popular resort until confiscated first by Saddam Hussein and, after 1991, the Barzani family.

The hands of America — or, more accurately, Americans — are not entirely clean.

In the weeks before the referendum, Kurds with whom I spoke suggested that despite all the official statements coming from Washington, they had been assured by other Americans that the United States would accept the referendum.

Who were these Americans who gave the Kurds such false assurances? It's time for the Kurds to say. Did they misinterpret outspoken congressmen? Or did they listen too much to former US officials who had leveraged their former positions into business opportunities in the region?

It does a huge disservice to American statecraft in Iraq and elsewhere when former ambassadors effectively use their title to bolster their local importance long after their terms have expired.

It is also time for the United States to be transparent with regard to the Syrian Kurds. In early 2014, long before US government officials would deal with Syrian Kurds, I visited the homeland they had carved out for themselves against the backdrop of fighting Islamist radicals in Syria. It was impressive.

Little did I know that was only the start. The People's Protection Units (YPG) and the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces were, hands-down, the most capable and effective local fighting force against Al Qaeda and ISIS. They should be rewarded.

It's time for a real debate about de-listing the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which, frankly, has long seemed more an insurgency than a terror group. Turkey — to whom the State Department has for too long deferred — has no basis for complaint given President Erdogan's own outreach to the group in years past as well as Turkey's open embrace of Hamas.

Simply put, the United States should guarantee Syrian Kurdistan (or Rojava as Kurds call it) be considered a federal region within Syria. Syrian Kurds should not be betrayed. Preventing betrayal means not only deterring potential Turkish aggression, but also engaging with Rojava's leaders so that they shed the personality cults that so undercut their Iraqi Kurdish cousins.

The Kurds in both Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan are capable of democracy. Democracy, however, is about accountability, not backroom deals to divide the region along preordained lines hashed out by party bosses. It means accountability to the rule-of-law regardless of family name.

No one should be able to murder a journalist with impunity nor should they be able to leverage their political offices to augment family fortunes. Indeed, against the backdrop of so much financial hardship, it is well past time Kurds demanded the return of stolen assets.

The true peshmerga who fought on the frontlines (rather than those who claimed to be peshmerga but traded oil with the Islamic State) deserve no less.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.

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