Two news stories in the past week shed light on some of America’s “allies” in the Middle East. The first comes from the disputed territories in Iraq – areas which Baghdad and its Iranian-allied Shiite militias recaptured from the Kurds in October 2017 as the United States stood by. In locations such as Tuz Khurmatu, Iran and its militias sponsored “al-Quds Day” (Jerusalem Day) rallies and parades. Besides the usual chants of “death to America” and “death to Israel,” the parades included American and Israeli flags painted on the road so that marchers and columns of (American-supplied) military vehicles would tread over them.
The second news story comes from Afrin in Syria, which has been under Turkish occupation since the spring of 2018. Turkish-allied Islamist militias in Afrin began a campaign to force women in Afrin to cover themselves in full burqas, claiming that such observance (to their interpretation of Sharia law) is “a red line” for them. Kurdish, Christian and Yezidi women of Afrin had become accustomed to the liberal and pro-women approach of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the area. With the occupation of Turkey and its allied Arab-Islamist militias, however, efforts to impose extremely strict variants of Sharia law have replaced the liberal approach to social issues.
This is occurring at the same time that some 170,000 Kurds have been ethnically cleansed from Afrin and prevented from returning there. Some 35,000 Arab rebel fighters and Arab civilians displaced from areas around Damascus are being settled in their homes to replace them. Citing the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the Independent newspaper in the UK reported that some of the Arab families, displaced from places like eastern Ghouta, insisted on paying rent to the Kurdish families whose homes they were resettled too – reasoning that just as it was wrong for the Syrian government to force them out of their homes, they did not wish to do the same to Syrian Kurds of Afrin. Turkey’s proxy militias would have none of it, however.
“Ahrar al-Sham, a jihadi movement closely allied to Turkey, has evicted at gunpoint seven families of displaced people from eastern Ghouta, who had been living in houses in Afrin, because they insisted on paying rent to the Kurdish owners … SOHR says that Ahrar al-Sham has threatened to imprison the evacuees from eastern Ghouta if they return to the houses they had rented, on the charge of ‘dealing with Kurdish forces.’”
Reports of the abduction of women and girls, of Kurds being evicted from their homes and businesses, of attempts at the imposition of Sharia law, and of abuse of Yezidis in Afrin abound. Even the posters that the Turkish-backed Islamist militias put up in Afrin, telling women to cover themselves, seem eerily reminiscent of those the Islamic State (ISIS) erected in its areas of control.
These are the kinds of “friends” Washington has worked so hard to maintain its relationship with in the region. Although Baghdad did not organize the al-Quds celebrations in the disputed territories and Ankara did not sanction the hijab campaign in Afrin, both exemplify the general outlook of the current political leadership in both places. Countless other examples of visceral anti-American and anti-Western outlooks in both capitals, from conspiracy theories to extensive military dealings with Russia, exist. At the same time all this is happening, Kurdish parties in both Syria and Iraq remain socially liberal and pro-Western. They do their best to keep fighting ISIS and other enemies despite their lack of independent sovereignty and the limited financial and military means at their disposal.
When weighing the value of allies, Washington and other Western capitals should therefore not only look at their relative power. By this metric, the Turkish and Iraqis states will always make more desirable friends than any stateless Kurdish party. The real question, however, should be whether or not the current governments – or likely future ones – in both Ankara and Baghdad can be friends of Washington at all. Have the policies and rhetoric of the last several years coming out of both these capitals given any real, enduring indication of partnership and affinity with the United States or Europe? How do these compare to the policies, rhetoric and genuine sympathies coming from various parts of Kurdistan?
In other words, it might behoove American and Western policy makers to engage in a serious reassessment of their Middle East policies, and to perhaps even think about coming up with a real “Kurdish policy” for a change.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.