The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has forced America to return to the battlefield in Iraq. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama ordered airstrikes against ISIS fighters nearing Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, while insisting that he wouldn’t allow the United States to be “dragged” back into Iraq. If Mr. Obama really wants to ensure no boots on the ground, he will have to rethink America’s policy toward Kurdish nationalism, and recognize the Kurds, and not only Iraqi ones, are his main ally against ISIS.
Mr. Obama, like previous presidents, has divided Kurdish interests by borders and subsumed Kurdish needs to the demands of states in the region. That policy is now out of date. Kurdish fighters are ignoring national borders to join the fight against ISIS. They are not doing this to defend Iraq — or Syria, where Kurds have been battling ISIS for over a year — but to defend this part of Kurdistan and its people.
In the past week, Syrian Kurdish fighters have saved thousands of Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority, by helping them to escape ISIS attacks in Iraq. At the same time, Turkish Kurdish fighters have deployed their forces to protect the oil-rich Iraqi Kurdish city of Kirkuk and have helped defeat ISIS near the town of Makhmur.
Syrian and Turkish Kurdish fighters are motivated by the threat ISIS poses to the only internationally recognized Kurdish entity in the region, the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Their arrival, however, was necessitated by the weakness of the K.R.G., which lacks a unified army.
America’s only partner in the Kurdish region is unlikely to deliver victory against ISIS on its own, even with American military aid. To stop ISIS, Washington needs to engage politically with all Kurdish forces, not just the Iraqi ones.
Indeed, Syrian and Turkish Kurdish fighters are gaining influence and a stronger foothold. America can no longer ignore them. Consideration of other assistance — whether financial or military — should depend on political developments and the urgency of the situation.
Although Washington has long been wary of Kurdish nationalism, it is a powerful mobilizing force. It also converges with America’s strategic interests. The Kurdish groups from Syria and Turkey reject radical Islamism. They are secular nationalists and natural American allies.
Washington’s hesitancy has largely been due to its relations with Turkey. The Syrian Kurdish fighters are from the Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., which has carved out autonomous zones in northern Syria and has been battling ISIS for more than a year. The P.Y.D. is affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., the militant group that has been fighting for self-rule inside Turkey for almost 30 years and is on the United States terrorist list.
Turkey has long opposed Kurdish nationalist demands on its own territory and hasn’t wanted America to do anything that might boost the P.K.K.’s standing. But Turkey has held its own talks with the P.Y.D., and last year it embarked on a tentative cease-fire with the P.K.K.
There is no reason for Washington to lag behind. America should directly engage with the P.Y.D. and reconsider its approach toward the P.K.K., especially since Turkey’s attitude is changing. Although peace negotiations between Turkey and the P.K.K. haven’t officially started, the Turkish Parliament passed a law in July that protects government officials from prosecution if such talks are held.
Engagement with the main Kurdish fighters on the ground in Iraq will help defeat ISIS and give Washington much-needed new influence by making clear its commitment to Kurdistan, while maintaining respect for national borders. The United States will also be better positioned to ensure that intermittent tensions among the Kurdish parties do not turn violent.
Ironically, American support for the Kurds could also help keep Iraq intact as a state. A few weeks ago the central Iraqi government was in a state of political paralysis and the K.R.G. president, Massoud Barzani, had announced plans to hold a referendum on independence. The ISIS offensive has forced re-evaluations all around.
Iraq is starting to understand that it needs a strong Kurdistan to defeat ISIS and survive. Mr. Barzani, who has since dropped talk of a referendum, sees that he needs partners inside Iraq and allies outside to ensure stability and protect Kurdish territory from assault.
The compromise that Iraqi Kurds accepted in 2005 — autonomy within a federal Iraq instead of holding out for independence — may prove more durable than expected. A new American approach to all of Kurdistan would help strengthen that compromise by strengthening the Kurds. It is an opportunity that should not be missed.
Aliza Marcus is the author of Blood and Belief: The P.K.K. and the Kurdish Fight for Independence. Andrew Apostolou is the former head of Iran human rights programs at Freedom House.