By Ruwayda Mustafah
“Saudis and Israelis worry, Iranians and Palestinians hope”. So read a headline following Joe Biden’s US election victory. From the Abraham Accords and the Yemeni Civil War to the Iranian nuclear deal and relations with Riyadh, US Middle East policy is almost certainly on the brink of significant change under a Biden administration.
Political fortune tellers will of course look closely at Biden’s track record to see how his politics could take shape. For the Kurds in particular, this will be extremely encouraging read. Indeed, Biden may be the most pro-Kurdish president to have taken office.
Over the course of his career, the President-elect has shown a deep understanding and compassion for the Kurdish people, both as a Senator on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice-President.
Biden’s concern for the Kurds dates back to the Gulf War, a military endeavor he opposed and in which he highlighted his concern for the fate of the Kurdish community. During the later 2003 Iraq War, which he supported, he was again concerned about the Kurds, arguing that they suffered from Saddam Hussein more than anyone else. When he visited Iraqi Kurdistan in 2002, he famously declared that “the mountains are not your only friends”.
Biden’s actions lived up to his words. As Vice President and one of the Obama administration’s leaders overseeing politics in Iraq, he visited Iraq at least 24 times and forged a particularly close relationship with the late President Jalal Talabani and former President Masoud Barzani.
Without supporting Kurdish independence, Biden was as vocal an advocate for the Kurdish people as the constraints of US diplomacy allow. Indeed, Biden’s support for the Kurds of Syria has been so determined in recent years that the Erdogan-sympathetic Turkish press has branded him an “enemy of Turkey”.
In contrast, Donald Trump’s government disregarded the Kurdish movement at best and despised it at worst. In 2016 he said he was a “big fan” of the Kurdish armed forces, but had already tried to reap the political fruits of a close relationship with Turkey, Kurdistan’s current regional nemesis. Former National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote in his book that Trump declared his dislike of the Kurds back in 2017.
The great betrayal came two years later when Trump approved a US withdrawal from northern Syria that left the Kurdish regional forces at the mercy of a Turkish offensive. His justification? That the Kurds “didn’t help us in Normandy”.
The question of whether a new government in the White House will actively work with Kurdistan to help them achieve their social, security and political goals is not black and white. But it has ramifications for Kurds around the world, including the 50,000 here in Britain, whose political identity is very closely intertwined with that of their Kurdish homeland.
Biden has never publicly expressed his support for Kurdish independence. The restrictions on general US foreign policy considerations mean that it probably never will.
When asked in 2017 why, under the Obama administration, Biden had not done more to help the Kurds in their quest for greater autonomy, Biden simply replied, “Turkey”. The country remains an important US security partner and member of NATO. Since the current Turkish government is vehemently against greater Kurdish self-determination, realpolitik will always have priority.
In addition, Biden has yet to deal seriously with the Kurdish communities and movements outside Syria and Iraq. A possible future engagement for the Kurdish community in Iran could, for example, be related to the new government’s approach to the 2015 nuclear deal – and it is too early to say what the approach might look like.
What we do know, however, is that the Biden government is likely to have a much stronger stance towards Turkish adventurism and aggression than its predecessor. US support in the form of aid, protection and military equipment for Syrian Kurds fighting Isis continues and could increase. Biden could also push for stronger Kurdish representation in deciding the future of Syria and Iraq.
The Kurdish community worldwide, including here in the UK, should celebrate Biden’s election with a new sense of hope and optimism – even if Kurdish independence is off the table and the situation on the ground may not change dramatically.
During the Trump administration we lived in a cycle of Machiavellian post-truth politics in which facts were replaced with falsehood and traditional loyalties were pushed aside without hesitation. Biden, on the other hand, has proven to be a real and resilient ally of the Kurdish people – he extended a hand of friendship not for political reasons, but on principle.
The Kurdish people pride themselves on the values of democracy and pluralism, and with these values re-anchored in the White House, we look forward to a positive new chapter in US-Kurdish relations as well as strengthening Kurdish identity and influence in the entire region.
Ruwayda Mustafah is a Kurdish born political activist and activist who specializes in issues such as gender, governance, Kurdish rights, women’s representation and social inequality. You can visit her website here and follow her on Twitter here.
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