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The Trump Administration and the Future of the Kurds

The Kurdish issue in the Middle East is at an important juncture. The Iraqi Kurds, faced with an unsettled Iraq, are itching to declare their independence. The Syrian Kurds have managed to affiliate themselves with the United States against ISIS but face a hostile reaction from Turkey, their northern neighbor, intent on rolling back their successes. The Turkish Kurds have to contend with the effects of government attempts at suppressing their legal political representatives and the war between the Turkish state and the PKK, which are challenging the country’s stability. Our panel discussed these and other issues pertaining to the future Kurdish political landscape.

Date & Time

Feb. 27, 2017
2:00pm – 3:30pm ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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Three experts discussed the implications of different U.S military and political policy options as they relate to the future of the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.

On February 27, 2017 the Middle East Program hosted a panel discussion, “The Trump Administration and the Future of the Kurds” with Gareth Stansfield, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center, Aaron Stein, Resident Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and Amberin Zaman, Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the discussion.

Stansfield explained that the Iraqi Kurds’ relationship with the West reached a turning point in 2014 because of the fight against ISIS. Focusing on the post-Mosul operation relationship between the Iraqi Kurds and the West, Stansfield warned that from a Western perspective the reasons for the tactical alliance with the Kurds are beginning to evaporate. He added that the pre-existing tensions between Baghdad and Erbil became even more sensitive and emphasized this is likely to complicate issues such as the formalization of oil exports from the Kurdistan region to the West. From the Iraqi Kurds’ perspective, political questions of potential independence remain largely unaddressed by the West, despite the wide recognition of the KRG’s institutionalized relationship with Turkey. Stansfield concluded that the new U.S. administration could be an opportunity for Iraq’s Kurds given their current geopolitical alignment.

Stein pointed at the dilemma that the U.S. administration inherited in Syria: While the Syrian Kurds proved to be the United States’ most effective partner against ISIS on the ground, this alignment seriously harms the U.S. relationship with their NATO ally Turkey. Having “metastasized into its current scope” since ISIS’s invasion of Kobane in 2014, the U.S. alliance with the Syrian Kurds was less complicated up until 2015 when the peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK broke down. Stein analyzed the rise of the Kurdish PYD/YPG in Syria by highlighting several “missteps” of the Turkish government, such as the Turkish leadership’s insistence on excluding the PYD from the peace talks in Geneva, which allowed the Syrian Kurds to expand and consolidate their territorial gains without being held accountable to any political commitments. Stein concluded that the United States is likely to directly arm the Syrian Kurds but will need to grapple with the unknown political consequences of this move.

Zaman analyzed the historical roots of the Kurdish insurgencies in both Syria and Turkey. She emphasized that while U.S. plans for the Syrian Kurds might still be unclear, both of the new administration’s main goals in the Middle East—combating ISIS and containing Iran—involve the engagement of the Kurds. Zaman pointed out that given the lack of political support by the United States so far, “the Syrian Kurds will not put all their eggs in the U.S. basket.” However, she stated that a possible U.S. role in political stabilization in Syria, including oversight of the establishment of local councils, could be an opportunity for the Syrian Kurds to consolidate their political power. She concluded by recommending that the United States should work to improve the Syrian Kurds’ relations with Turkey and the KRG in Iraq. The revival of the peace talks between the Turkish government and Turkey’s Kurds remains a precondition for both.

In the Q&A portion, Stein emphasized that the Syrian Kurds are aligning with several Arab tribes but that those tribes need to be better incorporated into the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces for a more sustainable post-Raqqa operation order. Asked about territorial borders in Iraq, Stansfield pointed at an upcoming referendum announced by the Kurdish leadership and bilateral agreements between the Kurds and other entities that inhabit the region. With regard to the likelihood of renewed peace talks in Turkey, Zaman said that despite the current peak in political and military tensions, the outcome of the upcoming referendum in Turkey might lead to another “U-turn” in Turkish policies toward the Kurds.

By Selin Aksoy, Middle East Program

Hosted By

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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