A Look At The History Of The U.S. Alliance With The Kurds
As a new round of fighting begins in Syria, NPR's Ari Shapiro speaks with Bilal Wahab of the Washington Institute about the history of the military alliance between the U.S. and the Kurds.
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In northern Syria, one U.S. ally is attacking another. Turkish forces are shelling Kurds in towns along the border. And President Trump is defending his decision to allow Turkey to attack the Kurds. Here he is yesterday.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They didn't help us in the Second World War. They didn't help us with Normandy, as an example. They mention...
SHAPIRO: We're going to fact-check that claim now and dig into the history of the U.S. alliance with the Kurds. Our guide is Bilal Wahab, a fellow at The Washington Institute, and he's here in the studio.
BILAL WAHAB: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Before we get into this long alliance, first briefly fact-check the president's claim that the Kurds didn't help us in the Second World War. Is that true?
WAHAB: The Kurds don't have a state even today, and they never had an army to participate in World War II. But anecdotally, there were Kurdish soldiers who fought the Nazis in Germany alongside the British army, for example. But there were also Kurdish soldiers fighting the Nazi-supported Iraqi government.
SHAPIRO: Since World War II, the Kurds have acted as military allies of the U.S. many times. Give us just a couple examples.
WAHAB: The Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga was instrumental not only in the fight against ISIS but even 2003 - the northern front to the invasion of Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein was from Kurdistan and was in coordination, cooperation with the Kurdish Peshmerga. But if you're going for the - down to memory lane, in 1990, when President Bush 41 asked the Iraqi people to rise against Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, the Kurds responded to that. And unfortunately, once Saddam Hussein's tanks rolled into Kurdistan, the U.S. just stood by, and that resulted in a massive exodus of Kurds to the mountain.
And you can also go all the way back to 1971, 1974, where the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq were fighting Saddam Hussein's regime, and the United States was arming them and supporting them in order to dissuade Saddam Hussein from falling into the Soviet orbit at the time. But of course, when Saddam Hussein finally came through, that support was lifted.
So the Kurds talk about the history of American abandonment of them. But this one in particular is - stings in a special way.
SHAPIRO: It's interesting when you look through all those decades that it's not only a history of standing side by side and fighting, but it's also a history of what the Kurds describe as American abandonment.
WAHAB: Which then adds to the Kurdish desire and push for independence because in a place like the Middle East, you have about 35 to 40 million Kurds, and they don't have a state of their own. So even if they get as far as being in an alliance with the United States, fighting ISIS and losing thousands of soldiers, when the geopolitics changes, they always end up with the short end of the stick.
SHAPIRO: I was in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq in 2015. And one thing that I heard again and again was, well, if we support the United States loyally and consistently enough, maybe the United States will support our desire to have an independent state. Does that explain why the Kurds have so often stood alongside the Americans?
WAHAB: That is definitely part of it. But let's also not forget the help and assistance that the United States has provided the Kurds because the Kurds, despite this history of - call it abandonment, you know, some say to call it betrayal - have actually no better friend than the United States because these respective governments - the Iraqi government throughout its history; the Turkish government, which denied the very existence of Kurds in Turkey; or the Syrian government that denied citizenship to its Kurdish citizens; or the Iranian government, who, even today, doesn't give them political rights - they always found the outside help, particularly the United States, even more benign than their own regimes.
SHAPIRO: As you've described it, the Kurds see a long history of the U.S. abandoning or betraying them. Does this time seem to be different?
WAHAB: This time is particularly different because in the past, it would be the United States helping the Kurds with small guns, perhaps with medical assistance, with some political assistance. And then when the politics changes, it would withdraw that assistance.
This time around is different. American soldiers and Kurdish soldiers fought side by side, bled side by side in Syria, defeating a common enemy together. Friendships and camaraderie is built between those fighters and U.S. military personnel.
And what the Syrian Kurds ask in return is not statehood or independence or a seat at the United Nations. They only ask that the U.S. military sticks around because that flag is powerful enough to deter a Turkish invasion. And Mr. Trump's decision was to remove that American flag and failing at protecting the Kurdish friends and deterring the Turkish invading army.
SHAPIRO: Bilal Wahab is a fellow at The Washington Institute.
Thank you for coming into the studio today.
WAHAB: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.