Many Kurds across the Middle East welcomed Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the recent elections in the United States. The former vice president is known to be sympathetic to the Kurdish cause and his presidency is expected to bring some relief from the harmful policies Trump pursued.
Some even hope that the Biden administration may oversee the fulfilment of the Kurdish dream for an independent state. After all, it was Biden who in May 2015 told Masoud Barzani, then president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI): “We will see an independent Kurdistan in our lifetime”. But are such hopes realistic?
There is little question that Biden has been a staunch supporter of the Kurds for nearly three decades. In 1991, he denounced former President George H W Bush for allowing Iraqi forces under Saddam Hussein to recapture the liberated Kurdish areas in northern Iraq. In 2002, he addressed the KRI’s parliament, reassuring members that “mountains are not your only friends”.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Biden advocated for a federal model in which Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia regions are established to help alleviate the sectarian tensions driving the civil war. This move was welcomed by the Kurds, who saw it as a guarantee of their autonomy.
Biden also harshly criticised the Trump administration’s policies on the Kurds. In 2019, Trump gave the green light to Turkey to attack Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria, for which Biden called him “the most reckless and incompetent commander in chief we’ve ever had”.
But the president-elect is also a realist, and when he takes office on January 20, 2021, he will pursue the best interests of his country. His willingness to support the Kurds will be limited by the broader US agenda in the Middle East that he will set.
He had a similar approach as vice president tasked with dealing with Iraq and Syria under the two administrations of President Barack Obama. During that time, Biden repeatedly tried to leverage his personal relationships with Kurdish leaders to advance the US interests and in fact, in some cases he prevented Kurds from strengthening their strategic position vis-à-vis Baghdad.
While supporting Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, Biden pressured Erbil to come to terms with Baghdad. He personally asked Barzani to delay the vote on the KRI constitution because it had included the disputed province of Kirkuk as an integral part of the Kurdish region. This would have sparked an ethnic conflict in Iraq between Kurds and Arabs and undermined US interests in Iraq.
In 2010, Biden, along with Obama, personally asked Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani to give up his position as president of Iraq in favour of Ayad Allawi, the head of the Iraqiya coalition, which had won the elections earlier that year. This move would have meant giving up a post allocated to the Kurds, which would have greatly diminished Kurdish power in Baghdad. Talabani rebuffed the request and stayed in his post.
Biden also supported Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose decision to cut Erbil’s budget in 2014 and purge Kurds from the Iraqi Army caused a lot of resentment in the KRI.
So while Biden has expressed much support for the Kurds in rhetoric, in practice, his record is mixed at best. As a person who deeply believes in human rights and freedom, he may want the Kurds to have an independent state, but he also understands the consequences this may have in one of the most challenging geopolitical regions of the world.
In 2007, he warned Kurdish leaders against pursuing independence by saying: “You will be eaten alive by the Turks and the Iranians, they will attack you, there will be an all-out war” and emphasising that the US would not be able to protect them.
Yet interestingly, senior Kurdish officials told me during my recent trip to the KRI that Biden’s assertion in May 2015 about “an independent Kurdistan” and ambiguous remarks Obama made regarding the Kurds’ national aspiration were viewed as a departure from Washington’s long-held policy of a united Iraq. They also noted that this set in motion the Kurdish bid for independence, which culminated in the 2017 referendum.
“We thought that that was a green light to go ahead because they did not tell us, ‘don’t do it,’” said one official. Another journalist with close ties to Barzani, echoed this sentiment, adding, “We understand clear messages and statements and the United States did not give us that.”
Therefore, it is important for the next US administration to clearly articulate its policy towards the Kurds in order to avoid potential misunderstandings that could have real-life implications for the stability of the region.
The Kurds, for their part, should manage their expectations about what Biden can do for them. Instead of waiting on the US to provide support or solve their disputes, they should focus on what they can do for themselves: strengthening Kurdish institutions, upholding the rule of law, tempering down internal political tensions, and embracing freedom of speech and democracy.
Progress on all of these issues will be welcomed by the new administration, which at the very least will provide some level of foreign policy predictability and stability – a much-needed change after four years of Trump’s erratic leadership and reckless decision-making.