In 2016, Donald Trump excoriated the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in 2011 after the successful American surge in Iraq under President George W. Bush had stabilized the country. He blamed the US withdrawal for the rise of Islamic State (ISIS). His analysis was correct, that the American withdrawal led to the rise of sectarian violence, particularly at the hands of Iraqi Shi'ite strongman Nouri al-Maliki. ISIS was able to gain a greater foothold as a result.
The October 6 decision by the White House to abandon and betray America's partners in northern Syria, our best fighting partner against ISIS, is inappropriate on so many levels. When was it ever in American interests to empower Iran, Russia, Syria's regime, or Turkish-backed extremists, leaving America looking like a paper tiger, and an unreliable ally? After training almost 100,000 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria the US suddenly announced a withdrawal, without a road map to stability or even acknowledgement of the important the SDF played in the defeat of ISIS. The SDF, being bombed by Turkey which accused them of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and suffering attacks from extremists, signed a deal with the Syrian regime on October 13.
Now, while Syrian Kurds fear ethnic cleansing and the loss of their freedom, pushed through no fault of their own into the arms of the Syrians, Russians and Iranian militias, Congress has to act now to protect our even more important Kurdish allies in norther Iraq, or Iran will sense weakness and seek to exploit America's perceived retreat.
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is an autonomous region under Iraq's 2005 constitution that the US supported after the 2003 defeat of Saddam Hussein. For decades the Kurdish leadership in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) capital of Erbil has been close to the US and has created a region that is stable and prosperous. They were key allies against ISIS and the US has supported their armed forces, called Peshmerga, through training and budgetary assistance.
The KRG is an autonomous region under the Iraqi constitution, akin to Scotland or Quebec.
However in recent years the Kurdistan region has been sandwiched between a rising Iran and questions about US policy in Iraq and Syria. When the US decided to leave Syria it became clear that the Kurdistan region of Iraq could also be threatened. Unlike the US partnership with the SDF, the US relationship with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is one of two governments, because the KRG is an autonomous region under the Iraqi constitution, akin to Scotland or Quebec. While there were critics of the US partnership with the SDF, critically Turkey, there is no criticism of the US work with the KRG. That is why it is essential now to shore up support for Kurdish allies in Iraq and make sure they understand that the US is standing behind them. Uncertainty in the Middle East leads to US enemies trying exploit division and pry away US allies.
Washington cannot allow another retreat from the region after the collapse of eastern Syria. Northern Iraq is now the hinge, a strategic key, to the border areas of Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Iran must not be allowed to consume Iraq and Syria like an octopus. It is time for Congress to move fast and make clear the Kurdistan region is a key ally. That means support for security and the economy of the region. It means supporting the Kurdish region which hosts Yazidis and has large numbers of Christians. It means support for reconstruction and enabling the region to spread its wings at this key moment when US allies and interests appear under siege. An invite to the Kurdistan Regional president Nechirvan Barzani would be a good message from the US that the region is important. Listening to Erbil's concerns is also important.
In other areas of Iraq protesters are being shot down by Iranian-backed militias. Not so in the Kurdistan region, an island of stability. But as we saw with eastern Syria, an island of stability can be threatened. The US needs to do the right thing and Congress has the tools to make that happen.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.