Thursday, 05 December 2019 16:54

America and the Kurds

Real Clear Defense
December 3, 2019

John Bednarek and Svante E. Cornell 


Much of the outrage and frustration for the U.S. withdrawal from Syria focused on America’s long-standing relationship with the Kurds, without differentiating between Kurdish groups. While America’s relations with Syria’s Kurds are in flux, as a matter of foreign policy, America should increase its support for the Kurds of Iraq, a clear and reliable long-term partner in this historically contested region.

The Kurds, an ethnic group living on the borderlands between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, have figured prominently in American strategy in the Middle East for three decades. The 1990 Gulf war focused mainly on rolling back Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.  It also led America to impose a no-fly zone on oil-rich northern Iraq. This drove the Kurds to set up their own autonomous government structure, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This “regional framework” grew stronger following America’s invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein.  As a second order effect, the KRG became the most stable, reliable, and U.S.-friendly part of the country.

By contrast, the main force purporting to represent the Kurds of Turkey has been the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist-Leninist organization that both America and the E.U. consider a terrorist group. The PKK has routinely targeted civilians during its decades-long struggle against the Turkish government. This highlights one of the challenges with America's Syria policy because the Syrian Kurds are loosely acknowledged to be an extension of the PKK.  The United States military partnership with a group affiliated alongside terrorist linked organizations remains politically tenuous.

NATO ally Turkey did not and does not see the fight against Islamic State as a priority.  Appearances are that Ankara is more concerned with the Kurdish challenge and its ill-conceived efforts to topple the Assad regime and install a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Damascus.

Still, there is no love lost between the KRG and PKK: the Iraqi Kurds loathe the PKK, whose Leninist ideology they fear, and have repeatedly sought to prevent the PKK from using its territory to stage attacks against Turkey. One of the authors’ (LTG(R) Bednarek) experiences and recurring discussions with our Kurdish / Peshmerga warrior partners between 2013-2015 bear this out.  In fact, the U.S. has acknowledged that back in 2017, it contributed to helping rebrand the Syrian Kurds into the "Syrian Democratic Forces" to make America's partnership with them more in line with the U.S. led coalition against ISIS.  But the idea that America could build its Syria policy on this group after Islamic State was nearly defeated was incorrect.

Going forward, the United States must take stock of how its relationships with Kurdish factions relates to its key regional priorities. The first priority must be to roll back Iranian expansionism in the region while reinforcing America’s presence and assistance in Iraq and boost Israel’s security. This also means upping the game in Iraq to counter Iran’s pervasive influence. America maintains a small, but formidable military presence in Iraq and enjoys strong ties with the KRG. But America is not alone. Both Russia and Iran have worked hard to establish themselves in northern Iraq.

Russian energy companies have invested heavily in northern Iraq, providing the KRG with much-needed cash to stay afloat. Moscow even helped the KRG relieve $1 billion of debt, an indication of its willingness to step into the void left by the United States.

As for Iran, General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds force, has been a frequent visitor to the KRG. Iran made its influence clear when it urged the Kurds to withdraw from Kirkuk, a disputed northern Iraqi city and endorsed an offensive by Iraqi forces and pro-Iranian militias on the city. Kurdish politicians have learned that they cross Iran at their own peril.

By 2017, KRG leader Masoud Barzani, a legendary Peshmerga fighter, had already threatened to re-evaluate his reliance with Washington and move closer to Moscow and Tehran. The Trump administration’s withdrawal from northern Syria has put in question America’s credibility, its trust as a reliable partner, and its foreign policy in a region fraught with tension.

If America wants to bolster its influence in the Middle East, a good place to solidify our position is through our U.S. consulate in Erbil, the capital of the KRG, and obviously our U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Unlike the SDF, Turkey cannot and will not object to America's ties to the KRG, as it has close ties with the KRG itself.

America already spends millions of dollars in military support to the KRG, and for years American diplomacy has been key in mending fences between the KRG and Baghdad. However, this region is also at the crossroads of Turkish, Iranian and Russian interests. America could quickly lose its vital strategic position and leverage in the region unless it strengthens its relationship with Iraq’s Kurds.

LTG John “Mick” Bednarek, USA (ret.), is former Senior Defense Official in Iraq, and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense & Strategy.

Read 5194 times Last modified on Tuesday, 17 December 2019 08:48





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.