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Washington’s Kurdish Client Collapses

The crisis at the border of Belarus is just half the story. Why would Kurdish migrants flee their Western-style democratic regime?

Migrants gather at a logistics center at the Belarusian border. Djordje Kostic/Shutterstock

Acute tensions over Taiwan and Ukraine have largely eclipsed another troubling international news story. A nasty confrontation has developed in recent months between Belarus and NATO members Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia over Alexander Lukashenko’s campaign to encourage and assist Middle Eastern refugees to seek asylum in those neighboring countries. Lukashenko’s motive is to put pressure on the three countries and the European Union to ease sanctions the EU imposed on Belarus over that government’s increasingly repressive domestic rule.

One curious feature of the confrontation is that so many of the migrants come from Iraqi Kurdistan, and they appear to be fleeing rapidly deteriorating conditions at home. American Enterprise Institute analyst Michael Rubin makes a highly pertinent observation: “As Americans and Europeans address the migrant crisis on the Belarus-Poland border because of its implications for NATO, few ask why migrants from the nominally peaceful and affluent Iraqi Kurdish regions would risk their lives to flee their home.”

Indeed, Belarus is not the only place in Europe where they have been gathering. In late November and early December, news reports highlighted a migrant camp in northern France, where hundreds of Kurds were waiting for an opportunity to cross the English Channel to their final goal in Britain. As in the case of the refugee camps in Belarus, conditions there amount to a humanitarian crisis.

Such developments likely come as a shock to opinion leaders in the West, especially in the United States, who just a few years ago were portraying Iraqi Kurdistan as a spectacular success story in democratic nation-building by the United States and its NATO partners. Although the U.S.-led military intervention to overthrow Saddam Hussein may have produced some unfortunate results, the conventional wisdom asserted, the self-governing Kurdish region in northeastern Iraq was a clear exception, since it was stable, prosperous, pro-Western and democratic.  Indeed, Sen. John McCain and some other pro-Kurdish enthusiasts in the United States lobbied Washington to treat Kurdistan as an independent country, despite vehement objections from Baghdad and Ankara about the unhealthy precedent that such a successful secessionist outcome would establish.

The Western love affair with Kurds extended beyond the push for more robust U.S. backing for Iraqi Kurdistan. American supporters expressed similar enthusiasm for Kurds in Syria, who managed to gain control of significant swaths of territory in the north because of the chaos that country’s civil war generated. The mainstream media increasingly portrayed Syrian Kurds as worthy, if not essential, American allies and Washington deployed more than 2,000 troops to northeast Syria as a tangible show of support (and to “protect” Kurdish-controlled oil fields in the region).

The extent of enthusiasm for Syrian Kurds became apparent in 2019, when Turkey warned President Donald Trump that Ankara would conduct a military offensive to dislodge those forces from the border area. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan concluded that tolerating Iraqi Kurdistan was unpleasant and dangerous, but having a second de facto independent Kurdish state on Turkey’s border might be an irresistible magnet to Turkey’s own restless Kurdish population and could not be tolerated. When Trump pulled-back U.S. troops to avoid having them entangled in the impending conflict, the pro-Kurdish faction in the United States erupted.

News media accounts accused Trump of “betraying” an especially loyal and noble American ally. Indeed, some critics made unsubtle comparisons to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous betrayal of democratic Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler at the 1938 Munich Conference. A bipartisan coalition of pro-Kurdish hawks, led by neoconservative stalwart Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) even pushed through legislation seeking to block Trump from withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria.

Neither Iraqi Kurdistan nor the smaller region under Kurdish control in northern Syria ever really lived up to the pro-democracy hype. Kurdistan today in particular bears little resemblance to the idealized image that its supporters in the West carefully fostered. The self-governing region has now become a cesspool of corruption and undemocratic conduct, as two long-standing rival parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) vie for control. Each faction is dominated by an extended leading family (the Talabanis in the case of the PUK and the Barzanis in the case of the KDP). That aspect is sufficient by itself to underscore the exceedingly weak condition of Kurdistan’s democratic values and institutions.

The PUK now appears to be on its death bed, as public resistance to its corrupt and insolent rule grows throughout the portion of Kurdistan that it has controlled. The KDP is not in much better shape, though, as popular discontent with the Barzanis continues to rise. Both parties have responded to public resistance by resorting to outright police-state tactics. Given the growing level of corruption and chaos, it is no wonder that a surging number of Kurds are trying to escape and seek refuge in Europe. Belarus has merely exploited that situation, it did not create it.

The sad state of Kurdistan and the nasty external effects it is generating undermines the last fraying defense of Washington’s regime-change, nation-building crusade in the Middle East. U.S. policy has produced chaos and untold suffering throughout that region and beyond. Indeed, Europe is experiencing much of the fallout, and the resulting refugee crisis is creating severe social, political, and geopolitical strains.  The latest phase of Washington’s Middle East folly is playing out in a dangerous fashion along the border between Belarus and its NATO neighbors.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of 12 books and more than 950 articles on international affairs.

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