By now, many Westerners are familiar with the famous Kurdish phrase “no friend but the mountains.” While it is a very telling and powerful statement, I prefer another less repeated one popularized by one of the most prominent contemporary Kurdish leaders, Leyla Zana: “Kurds are like fire, if approached cautiously they will warm you, if approached without caution, they will burn you.”
Prior to the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq, Kurds were considered “second-tier” actors in the Middle East. During the war, the Kurdish people, their Peshmerga fighters, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) showed time and again that they were genuine partners with the US as well as the international community. To this day, Kurds are very proud of the fact that no US and Coalition soldiers lost their life in the Kurdistan Region. However, once US troops left Iraq and the Kurdistan Region in December 2011, it seemed that Americans largely forgot their stalwart ally, perhaps in attempts to overly placate Ankara, Baghdad, and even Tehran—concerned increased US engagement with Kurds was a precursor to changing the regional map.
“Maintaining stability” is one of the primary reasons that the US took concrete steps to assist Peshmerga in pushing back ISIS to several 'peripheral' fronts, and has been incrementally yet consistently supporting Kurdish military efforts. The fact that the US increasingly recognizes the Kurdistan Region's geo-strategic importance has helped catapult the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) out of its “second-tier status.”
Though the Kurdistan Region became an enshrined, institutionalized entity as part of a (now failed) federal Iraq, the old map remained, and Kurds worked within the anachronistic system, as mutual mistrust simmered beneath the surface. Crucially, it was not Kurds who initiated a redrawing of the Middle East—instead, it was religious fundamentalists who joined forces with Ba'athists who emboldened such primitive, medieval cruelty.
With ISIS' unprecedented summer 2014 blitz on Beiji's oil refinery and Mosul, Uncle Sam has been faced with yet another challenge in the immediate region and forced to once again cozy-up to the Kurds in Northern Iraq. After all, it was the Peshmerga, not the Iraqi army that has retaken and liberated most of the territories occupied by ISIS, including most of the so-called “disputed territories.” In an unintended way, ISIS' threats toward Kurdistan highlight an often under-discussed axiom: as Kurdistan goes, so too goes Iraq as a whole.
While the Kurdish-American population is small in number, on a near-weekly basis major cable networks and mainstream newspapers produce reports on Kurds and Kurdistan: whether it is about the "women fighting ISIS," the horrific genocide that befell the Yezidi people, the faces of the Peshmerga or even about how Kurdistan itself is modernizing and democratizing, such attention being paid to the Kurdish issue would have been unthinkable before ISIS came onto the scene. In a very recent diplomatic victory for the KRG, on December 9, the US House Foreign Affairs Committee that unanimously passed bill authorizing the US to directly arm and train Peshmerga in the fight against the so-called Islamic State. Military assistance previously flowed through Baghdad, which this current law could effectively nullify if passed in further legislation.
For the first time, both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are speaking about Peshmerga military victories as well as the overall need to continue supporting Kurds diplomatically or even morally. As a result of this new wave of support, the national discourse has changed dramatically regarding the “Kurdish issue” with more Americans demanding greater action in support of such allies and partners. The US government and Obama administration have a collective responsibility to ensure that this attention continues to translate to further concrete steps, as opposed to hollow rhetoric and bureaucratic lip-service. In such a chaotic and unpredictable region, the US should embrace the fact that a warm fire is waiting to be stoked.