Lily Dorstewitz, Staff Photographer

On Tuesday, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs hosted its fourth and final event in the four-part discussion series on the Kurds, an ethnic group in the Middle East, entitled “Kurds in the Middle East.” This week’s event focused on the United States’ broader strategy in the Middle East. 

The event, held over Zoom, was moderated by Jackson Senior Fellow Janine di Giovanni, who led a discussion between Ambassador Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria and current Jackson Senior Fellow, and Kenneth Pollack, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute and former CIA analyst and Middle East expert. The panelists discussed the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the upcoming Iraqi elections and the United States’ response to the move for Kurdish independence. The panel was joined at the end by Thomas Kaplan, the chairman of Justice for Kurds, the non-government organization co-hosting the series. The event was open to anyone in the Yale community. 

“One of the lessons we should learn from the experiences of places like Libya and Syria and Iraq over the last 20 years is that it’s not for the Americans to draw the political map,” Ford said. “Usually we are not very good at it and it would be much better to follow the lead of people on the ground who live there.”

The conversation began with a discussion of Syria today and the future of Assad’s regime. Ford suggested that by the manner by which he defined victory — staying in power — Assad won the war despite the enormous human cost of hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. He described how Syria today is split between the regions controlled by the Iranians, Kurds, Turks and Islamist militia groups. In his view, this division is likely to remain for years. 

“Syria breaks your heart,” Ford said. 

Assad and his senior generals are almost certainly not going to face any justice and there will be no formal trial for those responsible for the atrocities in Syria, as there was at Nuremberg for the Nazis or for the Serbians for their human rights violations in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s, Ford said. 

Without any form of justice in Syria, the country will remain too unsafe for the foreseeable future for the millions of refugees to return to. As a result, Ford called on the U.S. to redouble its commitment to refugees in the region. 

“I think it’s really important as we think about American strategy in Syria that it’s really important to redouble efforts to help the refugee communities, especially in Lebanon but also Jordan,” Ford said. 

Pollack then reflected on the importance of this year in Iraq given the upcoming elections. He pointed to the failed elections in 2018 which led to a weak government that was unable to prevent corruption from spreading or from halting the influence of the Iranians in the region. If this year’s Iraqi elections go badly, either through corruption or very low turn out, Pollack said that it could be “disastrous.”

“Not only will it reinforce the stranglehold of all the worst elements over Iraq’s politics and economics, but I think that it could cause so many Iraqis to just give up hope,” Pollack said. 

He called on the U.S. to take an active stance in this election, saying that American leaders should make it clear to the Iraqis that if they “move in the right direction,” they will have an ally in Washington. 

Pollack described the violent history of the Kurds’ fight for independence, and said that the only viable option for the region’s safety and stability is an independent Kurdistan. It is in the interest of the U.S. and the Kurds, he said, for the Kurds to have independence because national self determination makes long-term peace and stability more likely. 

While Ford also recognized the importance of the issue of Kurdish independence, he was keen to stress that it is not the United States’ place to determine what the Kurds ought to do. 

“I feel very strongly about this,” Ford said. “It’s not for the United States to define what Kurdish goals should be whether in Syria or in Iraq. They’re perfectly capable of doing that themselves, it is for us to define what’s in our national interest — that’s a different question.”

Both Pollack and Ford focused on the importance of the process of achieving independence for the Kurds. They pointed to the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2017 as a failed means at achieving it, as it was delayed a number of times and led to violence with the government in Baghdad.

“The issue is less about the outcome for the United States in particular. It’s about the process and we’re never going to know what process is going to lead to an outcome until we start moving,” Pollack said. 

Kaplan joined the panelists towards the end of the conversation to thank the University and the Jackson Institute for hosting this series. 

He praised the series for “highlighting the importance of the Kurds in the region and the importance of Americans and Europeans and all those in the West to remember the contributions that the Kurds continue to make for our common civilization.”

“[The series] really points to the fact that, if the Kurds are right when they say that they’re only friends of the mountains, I think it’s also fair to say that we have expanded their mountain chain considerably,” Kaplan said. 

The Kurds in the Middle East series first ran in person last year.

PHILIP MOUSAVIZADEH
Philip Mousavizadeh covers the Jackson Institute. He is a first year student in Trumbull College studying Ethics, Politics, and Economics