It’s no wonder anti-American sentiment is so pervasive in the Middle East. The United States has demonstrated a well-documented willingness to throw its Middle East allies under the bus when they’re no longer strategically valuable.
While other U.S. allies in the region have proven incompetent or reluctant when it comes to engaging ISIS, the Kurds have been instrumental in coordinating U.S. air strikes and seem to be the only ground forces to have any success repelling ISIS from the 650-mile front in northwest Iraq and Syria. For their essential role in combating ISIS, you would think the Kurds, who’ve been fighting for decades to establish their own state, would win greater recognition and respect.
Well, hours after American officials trumpeted their progress in degrading ISIS’ military, it seemed the U.S. relationship with the Kurds was already falling apart.
On Thursday, Iraq’s Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani expressed outrage that the Kurds had not been invited to an anti-ISIS conference in London, which was attended by leaders from 21 countries participating in the effort to defeat ISIS, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
“I express my and Kurdistan people’s disappointment with the organizers of this conference and it is unfortunate that the people of Kurdistan do the sacrifice and the credit goes to others,” Barzani said in a statement reported on Friday by Kurdish news site Rudaw.
The conference occurred while Kurdish forces succeeded in cutting off a key ISIS supply line into Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city captured by ISIS in June.
At the same time Kurdish forces were engaging ISIS, claiming to have killed 200 Islamic State fighters, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was at the London conference claiming that the Iraqi government and its international supporters had made significant progress against ISIS and that the tide was beginning to turn.
Both Kerry and Britain’s foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, pledged to boost weapons and other means of military support to Iraq’s government in Baghdad.
The United States has been reluctant to speak openly about its relationship with the Kurds, especially those fighting in Syria, who are closely aligned with the Marxist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), listed as a terrorist organization by NATO. But behind the scenes, Syria’s Kurds have proven to be an essential ally in the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS. In October, a senior Department of Defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the U.S. was coordinating with Kurds in Syria, explaining that Kurdish fighters were providing the location of Islamic State militants for U.S. air strikes.
The quest for Kurdish independence is hardly a unified effort. After more than a century of pushing for the creation of a state in the Kurd’s historic homeland, which stretches 150,000 square miles through parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey, Kurdish independence groups have split into several different factions with very different political philosophies.
The leftist Kurdish groups, such as the PKK in Turkey and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, embrace socialist values and tend to distrust the more conservative Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq due to its oil trade with Turkey.
The KRG has several oil contracts with foreign countries, including with companies in the United States. In December, the KRG reached a deal with Iraq’s government, which would allow Kurdish oil to be sold by Iraq’s state-owned oil company. In exchange, Baghdad will resume providing the Kurds with their share of the national budget, used to pay Kurdish government salaries, which had been frozen under Iraq’s former Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
Despite its relationship with the KRG, there’s no reason for Turkey to support independence for Iraq’s Kurds, and indeed Turkey has long been opposed to establishing a Kurdish state in Iraq. In fact, all of the U.S. allies in the Middle East are united in their opposition to any form of Kurdish independence.
So the question is: What will the Kurdish fighters do when it's clear they’re getting nothing in exchange for their cooperation in the fight against ISIS?