Biden and the Middle East: What does the new President mean for the Kurdish community?

Image credit: Rudaw

Following the uprooting of ISIS from Baghuz, Northern Syria, by Kurdish-led SDF forces in 2019 the question surrounding Kurdish autonomy and nationhood has reappeared in the minds of leaders around the world. The group now occupies pockets of ex-ISIS territory but continues to have no formal homeland of their own.

The withdrawal of the remaining US troops in Northern Syria has also intensified the problem, as Turkish troops flooded into disputed land which had been liberated from ISIS by Kurdish fighters, who now reside there.

On the other side of the globe, President Biden is finally establishing his foreign policy agenda after months of dealing with the US’s pandemic response. Will his government galvanise or detract from Kurdish efforts to establish their own nation state?

Who are the Kurdish people?

An ethnic group consisting of between 20 and 40 million members, the Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic diaspora in the world. They are dispersed over a mountainous region that spans the countries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Armenia.

They are stateless because, among other reasons, when the defeated Ottoman empire was divided into new countries, a new Kurdish state was not deemed necessary. One reason for this is that British diplomats wanted to keep the Kurdish population within Iraq in order to dilute the influence of the Shi’ite demographic, which seemed rebellious. As a result, the Kurdish fight for an autonomous homeland has been a central conflict in the Middle East for nearly a century.

The Kurdish population predominantly resides in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The political situation in each of these countries varies from the next.

Turkey

15-20% of the Turkish population is Kurdish, which helps to explain the strong independence movement in the country. Activists are split into the illegal, militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a political party with a presence in parliament.

A corollary of the strong Kurdish presence is that the Turkish President, Recip Erdogan, has attempted to suppress, often violently, the pro-Kurdish movements He views them as a threat to his centralised state and a cause of civil unrest.

Following the breaking of the ceasefire in 2015, which had been in place since 2013, the PKK and the government have been entangled in a bloody conflict. Recently, this has spawned skirmishes in urban areas such as Diyarbakir and Silopi, in the southeast of the country near the borders of Syria and Iran.

Since 2015, 5,464 people have been killed as a result of the conflict, including 549 civilians. Erdogan has also targeted the licit Kurdish movement, arresting thousands of HDP activists and journalists. Among these was Selahattin Demirtas, the former HDP leader and candidate for the presidency.

Syria

The majority of Syrian Kurds reside in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AKA Rojava), an unofficial Kurdish region. Although not recognised by the Syrian government, nor the international community, this area is one of only two regions in which the Kurds hold some self-governing authority.

The Democratic Unionist Party (PYD) presides over this area, although it claims to not want total independence, rather just a protection of Kurdish rights and culture.

The People’s Defence Units (YPG - the military arm of the PYD) played an integral role in repelling ISIS from the region. Backed by the US, they retook swathes of land in northern Syria. Following the withdrawal of US troops, however, Turkey (who views the YPG as indistinguishable from the PKK) invaded Syria to prevent the Kurds from gaining territory.

Iraq

Around one fifth of the Iraqi population is Kurdish. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has commanded an autonomous zone since 1991 and, following the upheaval of the IS conflict, has solidified its independence from the Iraqi government.

In 2017, the KRG held an unofficial referendum on Kurdish independence, to which around 90% answered in the affirmative. The Iraqi government, however, claimed that this was illegitimate and responded forcefully,  retaking the oil-rich city of Kirkuk (violating a 2014 non-aggression pact while doing so).

How will President Biden’s new regime affect Kurdish hopes for an autonomous state?

As of August 2021, President Biden has made three decisions that will impact the Kurdish people.

Iraq

The US recently announced that they will remove their remaining troops in Iraq by the end of the year. Until then, their forces will adopt “advisory” roles, consisting of training and advising local troops instead of front-line combat.

This decision has several consequences for the Kurds. The Iraqi government’s recent encroachment upon the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KAR) will likely accelerate, as they no longer have to consider the American ramifications of their actions. They will not be required to tip-toe around US forces on their way to reintegrating the KAR into Iraq.

Similarly, Iran and Turkey will have one player less to consider when, directly or indirectly, engaging Iraqi Kurdish forces. Recently, President Erdogan of Turkey has been targeting Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq and Syria – often under the guise of attacking IS – to curb Kurdish influence in the region. Iranian-backed militia are also exerting influence in Iraq. The US’s withdrawal will leave the Kurds unprotected against these forces, threatening their autonomy. This will evidently thwart Kurdish attempts to form their own state in the near future.

Syria

Under Biden, the US has retained a military presence in Syria, predominantly to support the fight against ISIS. This will stabilise the volatile northern region, which is coveted by neighbouring Turkey as well as Iranian militia, who desire the oil-rich land.

However much empathy Biden has for the Kurds, he will only maintain a military presence in Syria so long as it benefits the US. This means that once ISIS is convincingly downtrodden, or there is a loss of political appetite at home to continue operations in Syria, Biden may replicate his actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and withdraw from the region.

Should this occur, the Kurds will be exposed to the unyielding advances of neighbouring states. Turkey has already invaded the north of the country three times, creating multiple Turkish inroads into Syria.

For now, however, Biden looks set to remain in Syria. The topic was hardly mentioned when the Iraqi president, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, held discussions with Biden last month. This implies that the US is planning surreptitiously to maintain the status quo in the region – the strategic importance of Syria in supplying US forces in the region likely being one of the reasons why. Whatever his logic is, Biden’s actions provide a buttress to the Kurdish movement.

Turkey

Since taking office, Biden has adopted a tough stance on Turkey, naming Erdogan an “autocrat” that must “pay the price” for his illiberalism.

This rhetoric seemed to portend imminent sanctions against Turkey. However, Biden’s words have not been acted upon. Turkey’s expansionism remains unchallenged.  

This inaction has permitted Ergodan to continue to persecute the Kurdish community. On the 22nd June 2021, for example, the Turkish constitutional court agreed to the case for banning the HDP – the largest Kurdish political party. The US’s reluctance to intervene in Turkish affairs allows Erdogan to pursue the Kurds, reducing the likelihood that a Kurdish state – and the legal and civil institutions one would require – will appear.

So what now?

As the threat of ISIS recedes, the Biden administration must decide what the US presence in the Middle East will look like. Will the US continue to fund Kurdish forces in Syria? Will they maintain a military force in the area? The answers to these questions will have irreversible consequences for the Kurdish community.

Recent events in Afghanistan show the potential costs of a political miscalculation. It is up to Biden to learn from the situation and establish a coherent and multilateral Middle East policy that protects minorities and creates peace in the region.