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Beware of Hawks Demanding Help (Read: War) for Kurds

Back again, John Bolton and friends are out there proposing troops or regime change in no less than three countries.

Screengrab from Kurdish outlet Rudaw24, in May 2020.

Insisting on doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is a widely accepted definition of insanity. When applied to foreign policy, the cost of this insanity is measured in innumerable lost innocent lives and trillions of dollars of taxpayer money better spent at home. 

Yet it seems that no evidence of costly, bloody failure would ever dissuade inveterate Washington hawks from insisting on the same ill-conceived policies in the Middle East that destabilized the region and soaked the United States into a myriad of local conflicts with no vital national interest at stake.

Even among the hawks, few excelled at this exercise more than former national security adviser John Bolton, fired from his position by President Donald Trump in late 2019. In a recent interview with Kurdish outlet Rudaw24, Bolton—who positions himself as a “friend of Kurds”—outlines his vision on how the U.S. should help them. It includes a forceful return to northeast Syria, dismemberment of Iraq and, true to form, regime change in Iran. Overthrowing “ayatollahs” is, in Bolton’s universe, a magic wand that would solve all of the regions’ woes.

In other words, Bolton envisions for the U.S. to simultaneously wage wars against three states in the Middle East: Syria, Iraq and Iran. This plan echoes the vision of the balkanization of the regional nation-states, i.e. their break-up along the ethno-sectarian lines, first espoused by the eminent late historian Bernard Lewis. Kurds are not the only actors to be used as tools for accomplishing this. Lately Bolton’s fellow hawks at the Washington-based “think-tank” Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) that provided a blueprint for Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran are increasingly focused on inciting Iran’s various ethnic groups against Tehran.

Leaving aside the obvious insanity and illegality of coerced disintegration of the sovereign states, a project of this nature would require the U.S. to entrench itself ever deeper in the Middle East. And this call is made at a time when voices across the political spectrum are increasingly demanding to extricate the country from excessive entanglements in that region. Has the U.S. the wherewithal, skills, and political will to commit itself to a regional reorganization at this scale, and stay the course? Did Bolton consider how the affected states would react? In fact, the specter of Kurdish separatism repeatedly drew Turkey and Iran, otherwise competitors, into an alliance. How exactly will the borders of the new entities, Kurdish and otherwise, be drawn? Who will prevent and contain the foreseeable ethno-sectarian cleansing and bloodshed that would accompany the emergence of the new states? Most importantly, what is the interest of the U.S. in this, at a time when it should devote resources to the inevitable geopolitical competition with China?

A consummate Washington operator, Bolton senses that the unpredictable Trump might not be on board with this project even if he is re-elected. Therefore, he pitches it to the Democrats and Europeans, all couched in “humanitarian” language of support for the Kurds.  The Democrats, however, must reject these overtures, as they run against the grain of the demilitarization of foreign policy promised in their platform. It would also alienate the progressive, and staunchly anti-war, wing of the party.

As to the Europeans, widespread sympathies for the Kurds and strong Kurdish lobby notwithstanding, they recognize the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They also understand well that they would be the first on the receiving end of any further destabilization of the Middle East, with the massive migration flows that would threaten to upset the political order in the European Union itself. 

None of this means that the only alternative to Bolton’s hyper-interventionism is to callously abandon Kurds to their destiny. The Kurds proved to be capable allies against ISIS. Their, and other ethnic groups’, cultural aspirations deserve to be acknowledged and respected. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aggressive policies towards Kurds needs to be checked. However, a far better way to achieve these would be for the U.S. to return to cooperation with the European allies and jointly work with the governments in the Middle East to find accommodation for the Kurds within the existing framework of the regional states. Such an approach would also entail telling the Kurds that their future is better secured in harmony with the Arabs, Turks and Iranians rather than relying on a distant super-power with no vital interest at stake. That’s what the real friends of the Kurds would do. 

Eldar Mamedov  has served as a political adviser in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) since 2009, and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, and Arabian Peninsula. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. He is a regular contributor to Responsible Statecraft.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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