Joe Biden would be most pro-Kurdish U.S. president ever - National Interest

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden would be most pro-Kurdish politician ever elected to the White House, according to analysts writing in the National Interest on Sunday.

Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Philip Kowalski, a research associate at the same foundation, said Biden has long 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’,” Erdemir and Kowalski said. 

The Turkish state has spent decades fighting an insurgency led by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which the United States designates as a foreign terrorist organisation. 

“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 Erdoğan 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’,” they said.

“This combination of conspiracy theories and smear campaigns is standard fare for Erdoğan, yet it demonstrates that Biden’s concern for the Kurds will have consequences for his foreign policy,” Erdemir and Kowalski added.

If Biden becomes U.S. president, his concern for Kurds will be put to test as it will clash with the governments in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq - countries which not only have sizeable Kurdish populations, a history of internal conflict, and deep fears of Kurdish autonomy or statehood.

Biden’s strongest show of support for Iraqi Kurdish aspirations came in December 2002, when the senator visited the region, Erdemir and Kowalski said.

Biden’s tour culminated with a speech addressed to the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament in Erbil. The locals told had him, “what every Kurdish child learns is: The mountains are our only friend.” Biden pledged Washington’s support for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), saying “the mountains are not your only friends”.

Biden’s concern for the Kurds was one of the main arguments he provided for his vote supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. On the Senate floor, he said that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had “brutally repressed Iraqi civilians - the Kurds in the north, then the Shias in the south, and then the Kurds again”.

Erdemir and Kowalski said Biden had a genuine enthusiasm for Iraq, which he continued to cultivate as vice-president in the Barack Obama administration. 

They cited James Jeffrey, now the Trump administration's special envoy for Syria, as crediting Biden for investing in the personal dimension of diplomacy. 

“While his relationship with [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] was often rocky,” Jeffrey said, “he developed very warm relations with the Kurds, including former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and KRG President Masoud Barzani.”

Once the Islamic State (ISIS) became a significant threat, the Obama administration established strong military ties with both the KRG in Iraq and the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. 

Despite the importance of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the anti-ISIS coalition, Biden addressed Turkish fears of Syrian Kurdish autonomy; warning the YPG against 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, Erdemir and Kowalski said.

On other hand, Biden refused to call the YPG a terrorist group over its links to the PKK, much to Turkey’s dismay. Erdoğan’s government became convinced that Biden was pro-Kurdish and therefore anti-Turkish.

The emergence this week of Biden’s comments in a clip from earlier in the year taken from what appears to be an episode of FX’s The Weekly will not have helped shift that perception.

Biden said he would embolden Turkish opposition to defeat Erdoğan in elections if he became U.S. president, and he accused current U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration of having “yielded to” Erdoğan in Syria. “The last thing I would have done is to yield to him with regards to the Kurds,” Biden said.

After the AKP’s electoral defeat, the Turkish military launchd an incursion into Syria dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” dealing a blow to the Syrian Kurds.

Preceded by operations Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Olive Branch to seize Afrin in 2018, the incursion coincided with a nationwide crackdown against the Kurdish political movement. Former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) Selahattin Demirtaş and thousands of party members have been jailed since 2016. 

Erdemir and Kowalski said, on the whole, Biden’s “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”.

They said his greatest blind spot concerns the Kurds of Iran. Biden has never spoken up in their defence - despite Tehran’s oppression of them.

Biden will also 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,” Erdemir and Kowalski said.