Price of Selling Out the Kurds
By Dennis Ross
New York Daily News
November 8, 2017
I often take part in what's known as "track II
diplomacy" -- brainstorming discussions with former officials and academics
that explore options for breaking major international impasses or ending
conflicts. In one that just concluded, two of my longtime acquaintances from the
Middle East greeted me with, "Well, once again America's word is no good.
How could you abandon the Kurds?"
My Middle Eastern colleagues were calling attention to what
has recently taken place in northern Iraq. There, the Iraqi military, with the
clear involvement of Iranians and the Shia militias, pushed Kurdish forces out
of Kirkuk, including the oil fields, and back to the positions they held prior
to ISIS having taken Mosul in 2014. Crossing points to Syria have also been
taken from the Kurds.
My argument to the group -- that the Kurdish leader, Masoud
Barzani, strategically blundered in holding an ill-advised referendum on
independence and was responsible for what had happened -- fell on deaf ears. In
the eyes of my Arab colleagues, even if the Trump administration tried and
failed to dissuade Barzani from taking this step, the U.S. could not afford to
allow the Kurds to be defeated in such a manner, particularly with the Iranians
playing a direct role in the reestablishment of the central government's
position in Kirkuk.
For them, the Kurds were an American partner -- one we had
protected since 1991 with the creation of a "no-fly" zone shortly
after the end of the Gulf War. One we rushed to support in the fight with ISIS
when the Iraqi military had simply collapsed in 2014 and only the peshmerga was
prepared to resist it.
Now we stood on the sidelines. My friends noted the
contrast with the Russians, who had stood by the Assad regime, and secured it.
Small wonder, I was told, that for the first time in the history of Saudi
Arabia, the king had just visited Moscow. No doubt, they said, he had gone
"to hedge his bets and to take account of the new Russian role in the
Everyone in the region now knew that if their security was
threatened, Moscow was the place to look for help. Even the Israelis get this.
"Look," I was told, "how many times Netanyahu has gone to
Over two days of discussion, I repeatedly heard about the
gap between American rhetoric and actions in the region. One of the participants
even said, "At least Obama told us he was not going to do anything."
We need not accept these arguments. But we cannot ignore or
dismiss this growing perception in the region.
President Trump's words are certainly tough, threatening to
pull out of the nuclear deal and declaring that we will counter Iran's
destabilizing activities in the region. CIA Director Mike Pompeo echoed his
boss' words, citing "the threats from Iran...and the Shia militias,
including what we see in northern Iraq...We need to push back against QF (the
Quds Force), the IRGC (Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps) more broadly, and the
Iranian regime itself."
But our actions belie that posture. Speaking recently,
national security adviser H.R. McMaster said that 80% of the forces fighting for
Syrian President Bashar Assad are sponsored by Iran. Yet Defense Secretary James
Mattis, while acknowledging the Iranian threat and role in Syria, said that we
have "an anti-ISIS strategy in Syria, not an anti-Iranian strategy."
In reality, at a time when the Iranians are creating facts
on the ground in Iraq and Syria, we remain riveted on defeating ISIS. The
Iranians are preparing for the day after -- and we are not.
The lesson: Rhetorical hostility toward Iran must be guided
by intelligent policy. If we want the Europeans to join us in addressing the
vulnerabilities of the Iranian nuclear deal, they have to see a clear diplomatic
plan -- one that doesn't just make threats but that recognizes their concerns
about not renegotiating the deal.
Similarly, if we want the Saudis, Emirates and others to
work with us in the region and help carry the burden of filling the vacuum after
the defeat of ISIS, they must see we are taking steps to, at a minimum, contain
the Iranians in Syria and in the region. If the Russians could transform the
balance of power in Syria with just a fraction of the air power we have in the
region, is it impossible for us to convey that we won't tolerate the further
spread of Iranian and Shia militia presence there?
Standing by as the Kurds were forced to retreat has sent a
message far more powerful than the administration's words on Iran. After two
days of hearing Middle Easterners lament the gap between the rhetoric and the
reality of the Trump administration policies, I left feeling that it is time for
the administration either to scale back what it claims it will do or actually
begin to marry actions to our words.