By Vivian Salama
February 13, 2017
WASHINGTON — American forces were perched high on the top of the Bashiq Mountain, calling in airstrikes that pounded Islamic State militants. Down below, Kurdish forces rolled past to recapture the ancient city of Sinjar.
The December 2015 victory — it also regained control of a strategic roadway linking Iraq and Syria — was a testament to the critical partnership between the U.S. and Kurdish fighters in both Iraq and Syria. It’s an alliance Obama administration officials and even some critics credit with helping diminish the militant group’s aggressive land grab.
But that alliance has been rattled by President Donald Trump’s immigration restrictions and refugee ban. By blocking citizens from several nations in the region from entering the U.S., Trump’s order bars entry for most Kurds, a policy that threatens to estrange some of the United States’ closest allies in the war against Islamic extremism.
Kurds are an ethnic group predominantly concentrated along the borders of four countries — Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The latter three are among the seven Muslim-majority nations named in Trump’s executive order.
The vast majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, a religious minority in Iraq and Iran that has long complained of persecution and alienation by their Shiite-majority governments. While Trump’s order does suggest an exemption “provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion” in the home country, it does not appear to distinguish between Muslim sects. The order does not specific any exemption for the Kurds or any ethnic group.
“It’s bad, psychologically,” said Bassam Barabandi, political adviser to the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee. “Do you think the Kurds can live without the Americans? Of course not. But it makes America look anti-Muslim. From that angle, it is for sure dangerous.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about how the ban might affect allies in the fight against the Islamic State group.
For now, the future of Trump’s ban hangs in the balance as courts debate the constitutionality of the executive order. But there is much at stake as allied fighters, who once felt they were on America’s side in the fight against the Islamic State group, now feel as though they’ve been targeted as a threat.
It’s not only U.S. immigration rules that have the Kurds worried. Turkey, a key NATO ally, has been pressuring the U.S. to drop support for the Kurdish militants in Syria. Turkey views them as connected to a Kurdish separatist movement within Turkey that the government has waged war against for decades.
Trump hasn’t indicated where he stands. He has promised a more successful approach to battling IS in Syria and Iraq, although he has not offered details. His early statements suggest he intends to continue President Barack Obama’s strategy of working closely with regional partners in the fight against the radical group, specifically, other Arab countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Recent gains against the militant group in both Iraq and Syria prompted Trump to retain several Obama-era officials spearheading coalition efforts, including Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for global coalition to counter the Islamic State group.
Trump has ordered the Defense Department to review U.S. counter-IS policy and submit new proposals by late February.
Roughly 5,100 U.S. troops are serving in Iraq, including several hundred special forces. Several hundred U.S. special forces are also assisting in predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria.
The U.S. relationship with the Kurds has long been delicate given tensions between the Kurds and central governments in Baghdad and Ankara. The Obama administration had long refused to provide any aid directly to the Kurds given the State Department’s “One Iraq” policy, instead funneling all assistance through Baghdad, which is often at odds with the Kurdish regional government.
Past administrations have also tread carefully for fear that such alliances could backfire. Some lawmakers cite instances where U.S.-supplied weapons have fallen into the wrong hands. Others warn of Iran’s growing influence in the region and the implications it could have on efforts to stabilize Iraq and Syria.
Just as Baghdad has turned to Iran to fill the void on issues they can’t see eye-to-eye on with the West, so too have the Kurds. Oil rich and booming with other natural resources, the Kurds have been welcoming to all those willing to engage, particularly as it struggles to navigate a longstanding economic crisis.
Independence from Iraq, meanwhile, is never far from the mind. The partnership with the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State group had, for some, reopened that hope.
But Bilal Wahab, an expert in Kurdish governance, energy and economy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that the travel ban reemphasized longstanding assertions by the West that Iraq is forever to be viewed as one unit, despite its significant religious and ethnic differences.
“The military cooperation emboldened the aspirations for independence,” he said. “The ban looked at Iraq as one country and Muslims as one entity and this is a ‘One Iraq’ policy on fuel.”
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