US Support of Kurds – A Temporary Arrangement?

Map depicting Kurdish inhabited areas of Middle East and Iraq. (CIA map 1992).

The situation in the Middle East is a mess. Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Iraq are in a full-blown conflict. The Turks just had a military coup and (after initially supporting ISIS) have attacked ISIS (and US sponsored Kurds) [1] in Syria (August 2016). The Iranians are flexing their muscles, harassing the U.S. Navy in the Persian Gulf, and are expanding their political and military reach. The Syrian regime continues to commit atrocities against their own people and (aided by Iran and Russia) will likely remain in power. One positive force in the region has been the Kurds. The US support of Kurds in Iraq and Syria has provided the US a proxy force to fight the Islamic State.

The US has very few consistent reliable allies in the Middle East – Israel, Jordan, UAE, and a few others. One of the best allies for the U.S. in the region are the Kurds of northern Iraq. However, don’t be surprised as time goes on to see the US support of Kurds diminish.

The Kurds of Iraq have been in a better place over the past 25 years than they have for the many years prior to 1991. Immediately after Desert Storm the Kurds of northern Iraq (some say encouraged by covert radio broadcasts by the United States) rebelled against the Iraqi regime. Saddam Hussein crushed the Kurdish rebellion (as well as a revolt by the Shia of southern Iraq) with helicopter gunships and modern Soviet tanks. The Kurds fled north and east to the Turkish and Iranian borders.

Public opinion finally forced the U.S. to respond to the Kurdish refugee plight. The U.S. established a no-fly zone and protection area in northern Iraq for the Kurds. In addition, a massive humanitarian effort (Provide Comfort) was launched (spearheaded by the 10th Special Forces Group) to alleviate the situation of over 1 million Kurds who had fled their homes and were encamped on the Turkish-Iraq and Iranian-Iraq border.

From 1991 to the present the Kurdish people of Iraq have enjoyed a period of relative prosperity and autonomy – in part due to US support of Kurds. One of the few positive outcomes of the war in Iraq (2003-2011) was the solidification of the Kurdish position in northern Iraq. The emergence of the Islamic State, although initially a threat to the Kurds, has also brought about new opportunities.

The Kurdish people, living in areas of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria do not have their own country or nation. None of the four countries want to give up territory for the formation of an independent Kurdistan. Very few nations of the world, although some are sympathetic to the Kurdish plight, have an interest in seeing a new country formed by the Kurds. Turkey, an important NATO ally engaged in a decade long fight with the Kurdish PKK, certainly would not be happy. Iran doesn’t want to lose any of its territory – and neither does Iraq or Syria.

Currently the most effective force fighting ISIS appears to be the Kurdish Peshmerga of northern Iraq. There is, of course, the Iraqi Counter Terrorist unit of the Iraqi government – but it is small in comparison to Kurdish forces, in constant use, and subject to being squandered on mission sets that the Iraqi army should be performing.

Oil plays a big factor in the Kurdish fight for survival (as an autonomous region of northern Iraq). The Kurds have been locked in a never-ending dispute with the Iraqi central government over who benefits from the oil wells in northern Iraq and in the transport of oil to Turkey via pipelines that run through Iraqi Kurdistan. [2] The ability to control its own oil is an important aspect of Kurdish autonomy – and the funding of its government and military forces.

The United States will help the Kurds to a point – and will use the Kurds to achieve its goals – but the US will always keep its own strategic interests in the forefront. This includes appeasing the Iranians (Secretary of State John Kerry’s best attribute), supporting the corrupt Iraqi government in its aim to dampen Kurdish autonomy (and independence) aims, and keeping the Turks happy (preventing a further drift into the Russia’s open arms). It is interesting to note how accommodating the US has been to Turkey in regards to its actions in Syria even while the Turks are confronting our Kurdish allies in Syria.

The Islamic State is slowly losing its hold on territory in Syria and Iraq. Hopefully, the city of Mosul, will be taken by the Iraqi government forces (assisted by the Kurds of course). Once the Iraqi government has established control (security, governance, etc.) of Mosul the U.S. need for Kurdish assistance diminishes. Look for a realignment of U.S. attention in Iraq after Mosul is re-captured.

The U.S. has not always viewed the Kurds as a ‘friend’. As early post-WWII era the U.S. had a dim view of Kurdish aspirations and saw them as a de-stabilizing force. [3] Henry Kissinger is famous for his abandonment of the Kurds of the border area of Iraq and Iran in the early 1970s. There have been instances where the US encouraged Kurdish rebellions against the Saddam Hussein regime and then abruptly pulled the US support of Kurds.

The Kurds need to look after their own strategic interests as well. As the Kurds have found out in the past . . . the U.S. will pull its support in a heartbeat.

News Stories on the Topic:

“Mosul fight is already redrawing the map of northern Iraq”AP – The Big Story, August 27, 2016.

“Kurds Fear the U.S. Will Betray Them, in Syria”, by Tim Arango, The New York Times, September 1, 2016.


[1] Read Why Turkey’s Hot Pursuit of ISIS is Not What it Seems, by Lionel Beehner, Modern War Institute, August 29, 2016.

[2] See an analysis by STRATFOR entitled Iraq: Baghdad Threatens to Sell Oil Via Iran, August 27, 2016.

[3] See a declassified CIA report from December 1948 entitled The Kurdish Minority Problem posted on the CIA portal.


Roy, Sonia, “The Kurdish Issue”Foreign Policy Journal, April 22, 2011.

Wikipedia, Kurds. A summary of who the Kurds are, where they live, culture, and religion by Wikipedia.

About John Friberg 201 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.