As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has returned from his nine-nation tour of the Middle East, with the goal to reassure leaders in the region that the initiated Syrian withdrawal does not mean a U.S. retreat in the fight against the Islamic State group, uncertainty about the U.S. role in the region continues.
Newly released data shows that the U.S. and allies orchestrated more bombings in Syria and Iraq on IS targets in November than in any month in 2018, as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the campaign against IS.
This comes at a time when IS claimed responsibility for a recent suicide bomber in Raqqa, Syria, killing a civilian and injuring members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
A bombing this week by another apparent suicide bomber in Manbij, Syria, that IS claimed responsibility for, resulted in the deaths of two U.S. soldiers, a civilian working for the Defense Department and a contractor. Three more U.S. soldiers were wounded.
While most all American media attention has been on the confirmation hearing for William Barr as attorney general and the longest partial government shutdown in history, the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s December trip to meet with U.S. troops stationed in Iraq still stings.
During that trip, Trump overlooked acknowledging the defeators of IS – the Kurdish Peshmerga of Northern Iraq. The credit for reclaiming territory from IS — wrought hand to fist by Kurdish Peshmerga who sustained thousands of casualties and fatalities in the three-year bloody on-the-ground conflict — belongs only to the Kurds.
The president would have been better advised to instead visit the Kurdish Peshmerga at their bases in Duhok and Erbil alongside American support troops with whom the Peshmerga have collaborated deeply, and underline America’s unwavering support to the Kurds.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with the men and women Peshmerga who defeated IS on the battleground would send a dramatic sign: acknowledging their heroism and sacrifice and perhaps immediately deterring Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s planned offensive set to transpire in coming months.
Unless the pending U.S. drawdown from Syria is reconsidered, Trump’s move will claim thousands of Kurdish lives under the guise of “flushing out ISIS remnants” in northeast Syria. Erdogan, who recently denied a meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton, has said when it comes to northeast Syria, he does not distinguish Kurds from IS militants.
On-the-ground American acknowledgment of the Peshmerga by the American president could have served as recognition of the coming threat from Turkey to the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces currently abandoned by U.S. support.
When aligned with the Kurds, the president would instead send a key message that critical as allegiances with the United States are, America is just as loyal and steadfast an ally to her partners. This would come at a time when Russia and Iran are seen as the most diehard global powers in the region.
Updating the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria that so far has included equipment withdrawal, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently described the effort as a “pause situation,” leaving open the possibility for a needed diplomatic correction. This is a move in the right direction.
Certainly, within hours of the Kurds’ abandonment by the United States, events on the ground moved with alacrity. Syrian Kurds have appealed to Damascus for pro-Assad Syrian troops to join them in Manbij as a deterrent to a feared Turkish offensive.
Turkish officials have been in Moscow to strategize. And Trump’s announcement, despite apparently angering Turkey, has triggered France to vow to stand by the Kurds by augmenting its troop presence and receiving SDF officials at the Elysee Palace.
The Peshmerga Kurds in Syria also face diminishing engagement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who may also see them as a threat to the integrity of Syria. Having exploited their uses for stabilizing an IS-infested region of Syria, Assad may see fit to dispose of the Kurds immediately.
By recently visiting Baghdad — effectively an Iranian annex under control of a pro-Iranian Iraqi president who has openly declared the importance of aligning Iraq closer to Iran) — Trump further exploited the 2017 victory over ISIS led by the sacrifice of the Kurdish Peshmerga from northern Iraq.
This president, unlike all other U.S. presidents before him, could take the long overdue action and declare the country’s recognition of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. This would mark the beginning for a sovereign Kurdistan that is so richly and painfully deserved by the Kurdish people.
Iraq is already partitioned on the ground: a Kurdish North, a Sunni triangle and Shia South known as the Three-State Solution. Formalizing the partition would empower America’s best and bravest heroes and incite dismay among America’s most treacherous enemies — a divided Iraq is Iran’s nightmare.
But for the Kurds, for the wider Sunni world and for jihadist groups looking to exploit vacuums of governance and sectarianism, a divided Iraq is a foundation for peace, and an independent Kurdistan signals that the Kurds are indeed internationally defended.
American acknowledgment of the allegiance of Kurds would be a pivotal and positive swing in the security of the Middle East. Iran would be chastened. Iraqi influence and ambitions over oil-rich Kurdistan would be subdued. Israel and the United States could commence building operational bases in Kurdistan in full view of Turkey and Syria, who, noting the heavyweights settling in for the long haul next door, would likely be deterred.
This is an opportunity for the U.S. to improve relations in the Middle East and perhaps even remake its trajectory.
The U.S. can simultaneously recognize an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq guaranteed by both U.S. and UN peacekeeping forces, relocate exited troops from Syria into northern Kurdistan and adeptly return America as moral arbiter.
In this bold move, America can face Iran and Russia with an American ally an independent and empowered Kurdistan, hosting American troops, bases and ordinance, while simultaneously reminding Iran the U.S. will not be driven from the region.
The Kurds, the world’s largest ethnicity denied a state and nationhood, would finally be recognized as a people with a state of their own. Their loyalty to the United States, western Europe, Canada and Israel could be rewarded, and an entire region calmed.
The way forward can only be through an independent Kurdistan which the United States must guarantee, as the moral obligation America owes the Kurds.
Qanta A. Ahmed is a physician, author of “In the Land of Invisible Women” and member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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