McMaster, McCain Call to Back Kurds

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster answers questions during a press briefing at the White House
National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster answers questions during a press briefing at the White House (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Leading U.S. political figures Senator John McCain and National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster have called for America to ensure Kurdish security and curb Iranian influence. Iraqi forces recently seized disputed territories including the city of Kirkuk from the Kurds as tensions mount following the Kurdistan independence referendum.

President Trump has long warned about the dangers to American security posed by Iranian ambitions. Iran is steadfastly opposed to a Kurdish state. 

“What we would like to see in Iraq is a stable Iraq that is not aligned with Iran,” McMaster told a meeting of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

He clarified that “part of a strong Iraq is a strong Kurdish region where we have very long-time partners whose partnership we value tremendously, who you know, who bore the brunt of Saddam Hussein’s brutality over many years and who we intervene on their behalf as everyone knows after 1991 and they used the safety and security we helped provide that region to build a—phenomenal communities in Sulaymaniyah, and Erbil and in Dohuk. I mean these are southern European thriving cities when you go to the Kurdish region.”

McMaster did not shy away from blaming Iran for aggression against the Kurds. In an interview with the U.S.-funded Arabic news network Al-Hurra, he accused Iran of taking “advantage of divisions within the Kurdish Regional Government, divisions within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] after the death of Jalal Talabani, God rest his soul, and what they have done is tried to advance their interest at the expense of long-term security and stability in Iraq.”

He called on America to intervene, saying, “What we need to do, though, is we have to work to mediate this conflict in a way that allows our Kurdish friends to enjoy the safety, security and prosperity they built over so many years and not regress from that.”

Former Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain was more forthright. In a New York Times op-ed, McCain slammed the Iraqi government’s attacks on Kurdish forces as “totally unacceptable.”

“The United States offered arms and training to the government of Iraq to fight the Islamic State and secure Iraq from external threats — not to attack Iraqi Kurds, who are some of America’s most trusted and capable partners in the region,” he said.

Despite his strong words, Iraqi forces are already using American equipment to attack Kurds. People’s Mobilization Units (PMU), the paramilitary forces attached to the Iraqi army, launched a four-pronged attack against the Kurdish Peshmerga northwest of Mosul on Thursday, according to Kurdistan 24.

As of 1200 hrs, Peshmerga heroically repelled today’s attacks, destroying three tanks, five U.S. Humvees and one Badger,” the Kurdish Region Security Council said in a statement. “Having retreated from the areas, Iraqi forces have resorted to shelling Peshmerga positions.”

The Kurds report that around 100 militia fighters were killed. The offensive is aimed at capturing the strategically important area of Iraq next to the Syrian border, according to analyst Seth Frantzman. If successful, it would cut off the Iraqi Kurds from Kurdish areas of Syria.

“Let me be clear: If Baghdad cannot guarantee the Kurdish people in Iraq the security, freedom and opportunities they desire, and if the United States is forced to choose between Iranian-backed militias and our longstanding Kurdish partners, I choose the Kurds,” McCain wrote.

What exactly does he mean by that? Iraq has already rejected a request by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to disband the Iranian-backed militias grouped under the PMU banner.

The PMU were called to arms in 2014 by a fatwa issued by leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to fight ISIS. The PMU were officially made part of the Iraqi army in November 2016.

It was unclear if McCain would support using U.S. military force to protect Kurdish areas against Iranian-backed Iraqi militias. It is also worrying what might happen if America does not act.

“There is a great fear among the Kurds that they could face another genocide at the hands of the Iraqi government and the Shia militia forces backed by Iran,” said Julie Lenarz, the executive director of the Human Security Centre, a London-based think-tank with extensive contacts in Kurdistan. Lenarz was speaking on a conference call hosted by The Israel Project.

McCain blamed the chaos in the region on the previous president, saying “This is the unfortunate legacy that the Obama administration left for its successor.” That alone is not a plan. Despite making encouraging sounding remarks about safeguarding Kurdish security, both McCain and McMaster were remarkably light on specifics.

 

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Elliot Friedland
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.