“I don’t like Kurds,” President Donald Trump said, according to former national security adviser John Bolton. Twice now, Trump has ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeast Syria, leaving Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies to fend for themselves, despite the heavy sacrifices they made while fighting the Islamic State.
Polls indicate that if elections were to take place today, voters would likely replace Trump with the most pro-Kurdish politician ever to occupy the White House. During fifteen years as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—including two terms as chairman—Joe Biden demonstrated a special concern for the Kurds, especially those in Iraq, a country he visited twenty-four times as vice president. One Kurdish-American activist has written, “If Kurds are your concerns, he will make a good president.”
Kurds are most definitely a concern for the Turkish government, which has spent decades fighting an insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the United States designates as a foreign terrorist organization. Even though Biden called the PKK “a terrorist group plain and simple” and compared it to the Islamic State, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its loyal media have responded with a blend of hostility and paranoia, including groundless accusations in 2016 that Biden is an advocate for “PKK-loving academics.”
This combination of conspiracy theories and smear campaigns is standard fare for Erdogan, yet it demonstrates that Biden’s concern for the Kurds will have consequences for his foreign policy. Although Jonathan Guyer of The American Prospect has criticizedBiden’s foreign policy for being a “blank slate, onto which often-conflicted advisers from the national-security establishment will project actual policies,” Biden’s Kurdish policies have the potential to stand as a clear exception—providing an example of an enduring commitment behind his decisionmaking. If and when Biden takes office, his concern for Kurds will be put to test as it will clash with Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, which not only have sizable Kurdish populations and a history of internal conflict but also entrenched fears of Kurdish autonomy or statehood.
Although Biden was an enthusiastic supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he voted against the 1991 Gulf War, a conflict he said would be a “terrible mistake that this country would regret for decades to come.” Still, he came to regret what he perceived as President George H.W. Bush’s reluctance to drive Saddam Hussein out of power,disparaging his “bizarre concern to maintain Iraq’s territorial integrity” and allowing the Iraqi strongman to retake non-Sunni Arab majority areas of the country, leading to the “massacre [of] tens of thousands of Kurds and Shiites.”
Biden’s concern for the Kurds was one of the main arguments he provided for his vote authorizing the invasion of Iraq, which became a substantial liability in both of his campaigns for the Democratic nomination. On the Senate floor, he reminded listeners that Saddam “has brutally repressed Iraqi civilians—the Kurds in the North, then the Shias in the south, and then the Kurds again.” Biden was also concerned that if Saddam were to “get his hands on nuclear weapons” he “could fuel a new spasm of aggression against his neighbors or the Kurds in the mistaken belief that we would be deterred.” Although Biden wanted to protect Kurds from Saddam’s wrath, he was also worried about the potential chaos the Iraqi strongman’s downfall could bring, which in turn would “invite the Kurds to seize valuable oil fields; the Turks to cross the border in an effort to prevent a Kurdish state from arising.”
Biden’s strongest show of support for Iraqi Kurdish aspirations came in December 2002, when the senator visited the region with fellow Senator Chuck Hagel. Crossing over into Iraqi Kurdistan from the Turkish border, Biden’s tour culminated with a speech addressed to the Kurdistan Parliament in Erbil, where after a warm reception, the localstold him, “what every Kurdish child learns is: The mountains are our only friend.” Biden, who saw Iraqi Kurdistan as “the Poland of the Middle East,” all but pledged Washington’s support for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), saying “the mountains are not your only friends.”
While Northern Iraq benefitted from regime change, the rest of the country fell into chaos, confirming Biden’s fears. The war became increasingly unpopular in the United States, yet withdrawal would risk turning Iraq over to Sunni extremists aligned with Al Qaeda. Along with Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden proposed the devolution of power to three regional governments—Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab, and Kurdish. Biden framed his plan as an acceptance of realpolitik, claiming that the “Iraqi Constitution, in fact, already provides for a federal structure and a procedure for provinces to combine into regional governments” and further opining that things were “already heading toward partition: increasingly, each community supports federalism, if only as a last resort.” One of Biden and Gelb’s justifications for this type of federalism was that “the Kurds will not give up their 15-year-old autonomy,” which ruled out any return to a centralized government.
In September 2007, while Biden was running for president, the Senate voted 75-23 to express approval for his plan to federalize Iraq. Biden and Gelb pushed back against accusations that they sought to partition Iraq, while pointing to Bosnia as an example of how federalism could enable a peace agreement. The two predicted, “If the United States can’t put this federalism idea on track, we will have no chance for a political settlement in Iraq and, without that, no chance for leaving Iraq without leaving chaos behind.” The Senate’s approval, even though it was purely symbolic, would prove to be the highwater mark of the Biden-Gelb plan. Biden dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination after the Iowa caucuses and, after Barack Obama chose him as a running mate, adopted Obama’s call for a rapid withdrawal from Iraq.
The Obama Years
As president, Obama tapped Biden to oversee the administration’s policy in Iraq. According to James Jeffery, U.S. ambassador to Baghdad between 2010 and 2012, Biden visited Iraq twenty-four times while paving the way for the U.S. withdrawal. The vice president also had weekly phone calls with key Iraqi political figures. Jeffrey reflected, “it often felt as if the vice president was the Iraqi desk officer.” Biden had a genuine enthusiasm for Iraq, whereas Obama left the impression that he wanted nothing to do with the country.
Jeffrey, who now serves as the Trump administration’s special envoy for Syria, credits Biden for investing in the personal dimension of diplomacy. “While his relationship with [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] was often rocky,” Jeffrey wrote, “he developed very warm relations with the Kurds, including former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and KRG President Masoud Barzani.” The friendship between Biden and Barzani goes back nearly twenty years. According to Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor under Obama, Biden even learned the names of all of Barzani’s grandsons.
While the rise of Islamic State exposed the risks of a withdrawal, Jeffrey describes Biden as a voice of restraint who appreciated the value of keeping at least several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq. Yet Obama ensured that no troops would remain behind, and Biden deferred.
Once the Islamic State became a threat Obama could not ignore, the administration established strong military ties with both the KRG in Iraq and the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. This interaction with Syrian Kurds marked a significant change for Biden, who had dealt with Kurds almost exclusively in an Iraqi context. Soon, the U.S. relationship with the YPG would ensure that Biden also had to reckon with Turkish-Kurdish tensions.
Despite his personal relationship with KRG President Barzani, Biden never lent support to Barzani’s campaign for KRG independence from Iraq. Instead, Biden called for “close cooperation between the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as they take steps to strengthen political unity and economic stability.”
In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multiethnic force bringing together the Kurdish-led YPG, Arabs, Syriac and Chaldean Christians, and Yazidis, provided the main ground forces in the fight against Islamic State, while the United States provided air power and other high-end capabilities. Despite the importance of the YPG-led SDF to the anti-Islamic State coalition, Biden accommodated Turkish fears of Syrian Kurdish autonomy, warning the YPG to avoid creating a “separate enclave on the Syrian-Turkish border” and urging it to withdraw to the east of the Euphrates or risk having U.S. aid cut off. On other hand, Biden refused to call the YPG a terrorist group because of its links to the PKK, much to Turkey’s dismay. Ankara also resented Biden’s observation in 2014 that Turkey and other U.S. allies “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands [sic] of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad,” including Sunni jihadists.
This was more than enough to persuade Erdogan’s government that Biden was unacceptably pro-Kurdish and therefore anti-Turkish. Ankara had reached the same conclusion when Obama picked Biden as his running mate in 2008; Turkish mediaslammed Biden as an “enemy of Turkey,” not only for being pro-Kurdish but also pro-Greek and pro Armenian, referring to him as “the impertinent senator.” In 2016, Turkey’s pro-government media added the charge that Biden was an advocate for “PKK-loving academics,” a baseless claim that mainly illustrates the kind of smear tactics that the Erdogan government employs even against leaders of fellow NATO member states.
In contrast, Biden remained on very good terms with Masoud Barzani and the KRG, whom he and Obama hosted at the White House in 2015. During Biden’s final trip abroad as vice president, Barzani referred to him as “a friend of the Kurdistan nation” when they met at the Davos World Economic Forum.
The Trump Interregnum
The limits of Washington’s support for the KRG became apparent when Baghdad launched a brief military offensive to retaliate for Barzani’s decision to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq. Biden did not criticize the Trump administration’s passivity, although this may only have reflected the tradition of former presidents and vice presidents remaining mostly silent on political affairs. However, in late 2017, Biden did comment he wished the United States “could have done more for the Kurds.” When asked why he did not do more as vice president, he responded “Turkey.” This echoes his 2007 warning to Iraqi Kurdish leaders against pursuing independence, since “You will be eaten alive by the Turks and the Iranians, they will attack you, there will be an all-out war.”
Biden offered more full-throated support of America’s Kurdish partners in October 2019, when Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from parts of Syria’s northern border gave Turkey and its Syrian Islamist proxies a green light to launch an offensive against the SDF. Biden wrote that Trump “sold out the Syrian Democratic Forces—the courageous Kurds and Arabs who fought with us to smash ISIS’s caliphate—and he betrayed a key local ally in the fight against terrorism.” Antony Blinken, a senior foreign policy advisor for Biden’s presidential campaign, also bemoaned the lack of American presence in Syria and the abandonment of the Kurds.
The Other Kurds
While Biden clearly supports those Kurds who have been Washington’s partners over the years, his public remarks do not indicate that he has grappled with the dilemma of the Kurds as a people, divided geographically between four sovereign states and politically between a wide array of interlocking factions. In this sense, Biden’s greatest blind spot concerns the Kurds of Iran. Biden has never spoken up in their defense despite Tehran’s oppression; the only time the Obama administration dealt with an Iranian-Kurdish issue was in 2009 when it named the anti-regime Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), an affiliate of the PKK, as a terrorist organization. Given his previous support for federalism in Iraq, Biden may sympathize with Iran’s Kurdish population, whose political parties overwhelmingly support federalism in Iran. Yet any support for the Iranian Kurds, or human rights in Iran more broadly, may depend on the firmness of Biden’s commitment to reverse Trump’s maximum pressure strategy and rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.
Similarly, if Biden is determined to advocate for the Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi Kurdish communities, he will have to navigate Washington’s complex relations with Ankara and Baghdad, along with a hostile regime in Damascus. To succeed, Biden would have to persuade Ankara and Baghdad to perceive him as a partner capable of helping with their respective Kurdish problems as opposed to a suspect Kurdophile who needs to be restrained until the end of his mandate. This may prove difficult especially given the Turkish government’s knee-jerk reaction to anything it perceives as strengthening the idea of Kurdish self-rule in the region. Ultimately, the real test of Biden’s pro-Kurdish sentiments will be whether the need to maintain pragmatic cooperation with Ankara and Baghdad will ultimately force him to temper his commitment to the Kurds that the mountains are not their only friends.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @aykan_erdemir
Philip Kowalski is a research associate of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. @philip_kowalski