Who Is Stopping Kurdish Leaders From Visiting the U.S.?

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani in Arbil north of Baghdad on September 25, 2014. Michael Rubin writes that the problem seems to be that Barzani objects to giving a U.S. visa to any Kurdish officials who does not support him. Maja Hitij/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

There's something strange going on at the State Department. Civil war continues unabated in Syria, peace talks and "cease-fire" notwithstanding. In Iraq, meanwhile, the fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) remains hampered not only by political chaos in Baghdad, but also by corruption both there and in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Within Syria, the only stable and secure areas are some of the regions over which the Kurds have consolidated control. One would think that after having pushed back or contained Bashar al-Assad's forces and having successfully defeated both the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and ISIS, the Obama administration would welcome the opportunity to consult more closely with the Syrian Kurdish political leadership. And yet, for years on end, the State Department refuses to give a visa to the leaders of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

While the PYD is not anti-American, Secretary of State John Kerry's policy simply forces the Syrian Kurds into the arms of the Russians. After all, the Kremlin has yet to deny them a visa.

Perhaps the State Department can explain its reluctance to work with the PYD out of deference to Turkey, which is upset that the United States might cooperate with any Kurdish group that has links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which, largely out of a desire to appease and assuage Ankara, the State Department has listed as a terrorist group. The irony here, of course, is that Turkey has done more to fan the flames of regional terrorism than the PKK ever has.

But that doesn't explain why the State Department has been preventing for months a delegation of senior Iraqi Kurdish officials and politicians from visiting Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Congress, universities, and think-tanks. The problem seems to be that Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader who refused to step down at the end of his term, objects to any Kurdish officials who does not support him.

To dictate which Kurds the United States can and cannot invite has been a constant demand of Barzani.

Many Kurds ask the genesis of the antipathy that Barzani holds toward me. The answer is that when I was a junior Pentagon official in 2002 and 2003 and the Pentagon was charged with inviting a wide range of Kurds to the pre-war Iraqi opposition conferences, I did not accept Barzani trying dictate whom the U.S. government could invite and instead invited on behalf of the Pentagon a range of civil society activists and political independents.

To have accepted only members of Barzani's family and party would have been counterproductive to democracy and to the competition of ideas. To allow a local ruler to dictate to the United States who to invite and who to blacklist would also have been humiliating to Washington.

Some American officials suggest that they must defer to Barzani on such matters because of the fight against ISIS. This is disingenuous, because every Kurdish politician supports the fight against ISIS regardless of their party, whether from Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party or the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Gorran, or Kurdistan Islamic Union. The idea that the security situation mandates an erosion of democracy is also misleading, because Barzani's demands predate the rise of ISIS.

In effect, what Secretary of State John Kerry or Special Envoy Brett McGurk are doing by denying visas for Kurdish officials to visit Washington is to try to control the message Congress receives. They fear that Syrian Kurds might present congressmen with evidence about Turkish complicity in terror, and they fear that Iraqi Kurds might tell Congress about how some American-provided funds or weaponry are going astray.

The disdain with which the State Department now treats Congress is unprecedented. To try to hide some of the problems now faced in the fight against ISIS is unconscionable, especially because they might allow adjustments to be made.

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