On Tuesday, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs hosted the inaugural event in its four-part discussion series on the Kurds, titled “Kurds in the Middle East.” The series is co-hosted by the nonprofit organization Justice for Kurds.
The event, held over Zoom, was moderated by Senior Fellow Emma Sky, who led a discussion between Thomas Kaplan, chairman of Justice for Kurds, and Bernard-Henri Lévy, the organization’s president. It was preceded by a prerecorded speech from President Nechirvan Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government — which is based in northern Iraq. The three men spoke about the historical plight of the Kurdish people, what the international community can do to support the Kurds and their important role in the broader stability of the region.
“With the Kurds, the U.S. has the opportunity to back an ally who they can be proud of,” Kaplan said. “The Kurds are certainly not part of the problem; they are part of the solution, and if the U.S. wants to limit its footprint in the region, they could do far worse [than ally with the Kurds].”
Barzani, who assumed office in June 2019, began his talk by noting that the 30th anniversary of United Nations Resolution 688, which established a no-fly zone over Iraq and began the process of recognizing the autonomy of the Kurdish people, has just passed.
Barzani used this as an example of expansive Western foreign policy that was crucial for the survival of the Kurds.
“Today the existence of a stable, peaceful and tolerant Kurdistan is a direct consequence of the intervention of the United States, France and Britain,” he said.
He called on the United States and its Western allies to continue this kind of foreign policy and praised the Biden administration for “looking beyond its borders.”
Barzani also called for the United States to maintain its presence in Iraq in order to continue supporting the Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State group. He noted that this aid and presence would promote Kurdistan as a bastion of stability and tolerance in a volatile region.
Both Kaplan and Lévy talked about how they have been passionate about the Kurdish cause for decades. Kaplan detailed his student activism on the issue following the Shah of Iran’s “betrayal” of the Kurdish rebellion in 1975, when the Shah agreed to cease Iran’s support for the Iraqi Kurds in exchange for control of land in Western Iran. Lévy described the experience of being in Iraq when the UN Resolution 688 was passed.
Lévy, who has spent time living with the Kurdish people, said the Kurds are central to the stability of the region and are unique in the Middle East insofar as they are willing to engage in an interfaith and intercivilizational dialogue. Lévy also credited them with the “defeat” of the Islamic State group in 2015, describing them as the “sword of the international coalition.”
Sky asked Kaplan what United States policy towards the Middle East, and the Kurds in particular, should look like going forward. Kaplan argued that United States policy needs to be a full reversal of the “betrayal” of the Kurds in 2019, when the United States pulled its troops out of northern Syria and allowed the Turks to invade the region.
Kaplan referred to this as the “American Munich,” referring to the 1938 Munich agreement in which Britain and France agreed to allow the Nazis to invade Czechoslovakia.
“The Kurds were on the front line. They were the tip of the spear. They paid the price in blood and treasure and what did we do? We betrayed them,” Kaplan said.
Daevan Mangalmurti ’24, who attended the talk, agreed with Kaplan, saying that the “U.S. betrayal of the Syrian Kurds in 2019 was among the most abominable acts of U.S. policy since WWII.”
Kaplan also said that it is crucial that the United States makes clear that the events of 2019 were an “aberration” from who Americans are as a people.
Kaplan added that in a world where the United States has real rivals — China, in particular — it needs steadfast allies. The Kurds, he said, can be one of them.
Lévy concluded by saying that he is optimistic about the future of the Kurds “if we are faithful to them and fulfill our duty [to them].”
Mangalmurti agreed with Lévy: “I believe we can be optimistic about the future of the Kurds in Iraq. They’ve made tremendous strides in governance over the past 30 years.”
He also suggested that the continued dominance of the Barzani and Talabani families in the Kurdish Regional Government is concerning, but the growing political diversity, regional diplomacy and utilization of oil capacity are all reasons to be hopeful.
The next installment of the series will be held on Tuesday, April 20.