Trump and the Kurds: An ill-fated love affair

Trump and the Kurds: An ill-fated love affair
In-depth: As Donald Trump's 'Muslim ban' hits headlines and airports, Kurds are reminded, once again, of the old adage, 'all's fair in love and war'.
6 min read
Kurdish fighters have long been ground troops in US-supported battles [Getty]
Only days ago, Kurds were naming their firstborns and restaurants after newly elected US President Donald Trump, the billionaire tycoon-turned-politician.

Long oppressed and treated as second class citizens, many Kurds across the Middle East enthusiastically cheered as Trump vowed to be a "friend of the Kurds", support Kurdish independence and send more aid to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.

But the ink was hardly dry on the birth certificates when it was announced on Friday that citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iraq, had been barred from entering the US for a period of 90 days. According to the Trump administration, as Iraq's Kurds are Iraqi citizens, they are therefore also subject to the new exclusionary policy.

Yet Iraq's Kurds have viewed themselves as staunch and indispensable US allies since 1991, when the Americans created a no-fly zone which provided the conditions for a semi-autonomous Kurdish region to evolve in northern Iraq.

This strength of feeling was further deepened by the Kurdish role in the 2003 war on Iraq which led to the ousting of Saddam Hussein and the banning of the Baath party. The belief - among Kurds at least - is that without Kurdish ground support and counsel, the US could never have secured crucial northern cities such as Kirkuk and Mosul during "Operation Iraqi Freedom".

Today, as hundreds of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga fight the ground war against the Islamic State group, notably in the flashpoint battle of Mosul, Iraq's Kurds are feeling betrayed again - and they are questioning the oft-repeated adage "all's fair in love and war". The way the Kurds see it, now that they've gone and done all the dirty work for the Americans in Iraq and Syria, it would appear all bets are off.

"Now this blanket ban does not distinguish us from the radicals, it does not distinguish a bad Muslim from a good one," said Namo Abdulla, an Iraqi-Kurdish journalist with Rudaw News Network based in Washington, DC. "Because we live in Iraq, we are all the same: potential terrorists." 
Many Kurds have fought side by side with American Special Forces in Syria and Iraq, so it is disappointing to be hear they will not be able to enter the US

Rebaz Qaradaghi, a Kurdish-American business development consultant based here in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimania agreed.

"It is very disappointing, as President Trump and many of his cabinet members have championed Kurds as America's best allies in the fight against Islamic State terror," he told The New Arab. "Many Kurds have fought side by side with American Special Forces in Syria and Iraq, so it is disappointing to be hear they will not be able to enter the US."

It would not be the first time the Kurds have been left hanging after doing the dirty work for a foreign power.

In the early 1920s, in the aftermath of the First World War, as nation-states were being carved out of the defunct Ottoman Empire, Kurds found themselves excluded, and felt cheated out of a homeland.

In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne reversed the commitments made by the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 to grant statehood to the Kurds. In 1975, it was the Americans who advised the Shah of Iran to withdraw support for the Kurdish uprising in Iraq - after Washington had indirectly supported that uprising.

In 1991, the Americans encouraged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam, but did not provide any military support, which allowed Saddam to crush the revolt, resulting in more than a million Kurds displaced from their homes. And in 2003, after much hype about the prospect of full-fledged Kurdish independence emerging from a post-Saddam Iraq, the dream of many here remains as elusive now as it was in 1923.

"I guess it doesn't matter that Kurds are pro-America in general or that Kurds are America's strongest ally," said Lawen Azad, a British Kurd who works as a communications and PR manager in Sulaimania. "American interests will always come first and I think the sooner we Kurds realise that, the better we will be."

She added: "I hope that this ban does not bring to a halt the support of the US to the Kurds in fighting the Islamic State group. The Kurdish forces have gained significant ground and retaken much territory in both Iraq and Syria and for the coalition support to stop now would really impact the fight negatively."
This executive order means I will not be able to visit my home in Nashville with my wife until this ban is lifted

Beyond the political ramifications, and the sense of injustice and betrayal, many Kurds have already been personally affected by the executive order in the few days since it was signed. Kurds with dual nationality have reportedly been held at airports in Europe after being refused entry to the US.

A Conservative MP in the UK parliament, Nadhim Zahawi, said he had been banned from entering the United States. Zahawi, who is of Kurdish descent, was born in Iraq, although he does not have dual nationality.

[Editor's note: On Sunday night, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson announced the ban would only affect those UK citizens with dual nationalities flying directly from the seven named countries to the US. That appeared to have been contradicted by the US embassy in London on Monday morning, which issued an 'urgent notice' stating that no visas would be granted to dual-citizens of any of the listed countries.]

Some Yazidi Kurds who survived the Sinjar Massacre in 2014 have also been banned from entering the US as refugees. Social media has been rife with Kurds expressing anger and consternation for their brethren in war-torn Syria who will now face obstacles in seeking refuge in the US.

Qaradaghi's wife is an Iraq-born British Kurd, and their daughter is American.

"This executive order means I will not be able to visit my home in Nashville with my wife until this ban is lifted," he said. There has been a great deal of confusion over exactly how the executive order affects those with dual nationality.

And Abdulla, who is a green card holder, will not risk leaving the US for fear of losing his status.

"My wife has been waiting for her US visa to be issued by the US embassy in Baghdad since September," he said. "I had planned a trip to Lebanon to see my wife there on February 2, but Trump's ban might prevent me from re-entering the US. This is not the America I always dreamt of living in."

Of course, this new policy will only affect Iraqi Kurds who can afford to travel to the US, whether for business or pleasure. For the vast majority of Kurds in northern Iraq, travel is not an option.

The region's once-booming economy has been all but paralysed for the past two years, as a result of the KRG's ongoing dispute with Baghdad over oil revenues. State pensions and public servant salaries are paid intermittently, and at a reduced rate. Construction projects have come to a standstill. And a political impasse over the expiry of the KRG president's term in office has reopened divisions within the regional Kurdish government - further complicating economic challenges.

So far, while other countries have condemned the move and Baghdad has touted a reciprocal ban, the KRG has not issued an official statement reacting to the executive order.

Tanya Goudsouzian and Lara Fatah are reporting from Sulaimania in Northern Iraq.

Tanya is a writer and editor based in Doha, Qatar. Follow her on Twitter: @tgoudsouzian

Lara is co-founder of Zanraw Consulting and Alfa 5 and describes herself as 'an occasional writer'. Follow her on Twitter: @Lara_FFatah