The Kurdistan Region, including its most senior officials, has warmly welcomed the election of Donald Trump. Almost certainly Trump will prove friendlier than Barack Obama. But that friendliness will probably manifest itself in small, individual decisions, rather than a single big one, like declaring support for Kurdish independence.
And a lot will depend on the Kurds themselves: understanding the new environment; making smart, thoughtful decisions; and taking the right steps to exploit the opportunities that the new US administration offers.
For Americans, Trump represents a muscular isolationism. He reflects, in part, weariness with the “war on terror.” On Sunday, in his first post-election interview, Trump observed, “We’ve been fighting this war for 15 years” and we’ve spent $6 trillion, adding, “We could have rebuilt our country twice” with that money.
Obama shares that weariness and first ignored the threat from the Islamic State (IS.) Thus, he allowed it to metastasize and only began to take it on, after the danger had become acute.
Trump realizes the IS threat remains serious, and his highest national security priority is to “knock out” the organization. And like Obama, Trump will not send US troops.
Thus, Trump greatly appreciates the Peshmerga and the Kurdish people more generally. While campaigning in Nashville, he affirmed, “We should be arming the Kurdish [fighters.] They’ve proven to be the best fighters. They’ve proven to be the most loyal to us. . . . They have great heart. We should be working with them much more than we are.”
The statement illustrates how Trump thinks and the qualities he values. Essentially: they like us and they are helping us. So we really need to help them. Abstract concepts—like maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity—are irrelevant.
One early change in US policy may well be to arm the Peshmerga directly, rather than continue to funnel arms intended for them through Baghdad.
Obama became reluctantly involved in the fight against IS. Virtually no thought or planning has gone into addressing the question of what Iraq will look like, after IS is defeated.
Rather, the pretense of the Obama administration is that Iraq can be restored to the form it had, prior to the anti-IS war, although that is at odds with intelligence assessments.
Two months ago, CIA Director John Brennan expressed his doubts that Iraq, as well as Syria, “can be put back together again. There’s been so much bloodletting, so much destruction. . . I question whether we will see, in my lifetime, the creation of a central government in both of those countries that’s going to have the ability to govern fairly.”
The Obama administration has been unwilling to face that problem. It acts as if Baghdad were a legitimate government. Its attitude toward Iraq issues, including the war against IS, is that Baghdad is in the lead and Baghdad properly makes the decisions.
One example involves representation at the international conferences dealing with the anti-IS campaign. The Obama administration does not accept that the Kurdistan Region should attend the conference independently. Rather, it leaves to Iraqi officials to decide whether they want to include Kurdish representatives in their own delegation.
This attitude has hurt Kurds. The Kurdistan Region hosts 2/3 of the refugees and Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq. Officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) should attend any conference on humanitarian issues related to the anti-IS war.
But Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Ibrahim al Jaafari, did not want KRG representation at last summer’s international conference on humanitarian assistance in the anti-IS war. Only at the last minute, was the KRG’s Washington representative invited, and then on a restrictive basis—as an observer, rather than participant.
Once Trump takes office, Washington will not likely defer to the whims of Iraqi ministers. The loyalty of the Kurds, as described by Trump, contrasts sharply with the ambivalence of Baghdad’s Shiite government—over which Tehran wields considerable influence. For Trump being loyal to America counts for a lot!
Trump will also be far less tolerant of Iran than Obama, if not actively hostile toward it. That will constitute one more reason to drop Obama’s insistence on subordinating Erbil to Baghdad’s direction.
Finally, once IS is defeated, Baghdad and Erbil will have to determine key issues for the future. This includes Kurdish independence, as well as the boundaries of the Kurdistan Region. Under Obama, the US would have weighed in on Baghdad’s side. Under Trump, the US is far more likely to be neutral, and even, perhaps, to support Erbil.
These are some ways that the Kurdistan Region can expect to benefit from the new US president. It won’t likely be through one dramatic proclamation, but a series of smaller decisions that, cumulatively, may well have a very big impact.
Laurie Mylroie is a Washington DC correspondent for Kurdistan24 and covers the State Department and Pentagon.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan24.
Editing by Delovan Barwari