Sunday, April 9, 2017

Kurds in Iraq and Syria: U.S. Partners Against the Islamic State

Since 2014, the United States and members of a coalition it leads have partnered with a politically diverse set of Kurdish groups to combat the Islamic State organization (IS, also known as ISIS/ISIL or by the Arabic acronym Da’esh). For background information on these groups and their relationships in the region, see CRS In Focus IF10350, The Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran, by Jim Zanotti and Bolko J. Skorupski.

The capabilities of various Kurdish ground forces have advanced some U.S. objectives in connection with ongoing anti-IS operations. At the same time, as these operations increasingly focus on predominantly Sunni Arab areas such as Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqah, Syria, U.S. officials are encouraging Kurdish forces to support and empower the combat and post-conflict administration profile of non-Kurdish forces that may have greater ethnic and political legitimacy with local populations. U.S. officials also seek to avoid having U.S. cooperation with Kurds significantly disrupt U.S. relations with other partners, including the Iraqi central government and NATO ally Turkey in light of those partners’ respective concerns and operations on the ground in Iraq and northern Syria.

Legal authorities enacted by Congress and the President permit the Administration to provide some arms and some Iraq/Syria anti-IS-related funding to Kurdish groups under certain conditions. In April 2016, the Defense Department announced that it would provide more than $400 million in assistance to pay and otherwise sustain Iraqi Kurdish fighters as part of an ongoing partnership that delivers U.S. assistance to Iraqi Kurds with the consent of the Iraqi national government. Some Members of Congress proposed legislation in the 114th Congress that would have extended or expanded U.S. cooperation with Kurdish groups under certain conditions.

This report examines:

the roles played by Iraqi Kurdish groups affiliated with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)/People’s Protection Units (YPG) in U.S. and coalition efforts to defeat the Islamic State;

interactions Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have with other actors;

benefits and challenges the Kurdish role presents for U.S. interests in the region;

the outlook for military operations (such as against Mosul in Iraq and Raqqah in Syria) and political outcomes;

humanitarian concerns regarding displaced persons in Kurdish-controlled areas, and human rights concerns regarding Kurdish forces’ treatment of civilians in areas they capture;

specific U.S. policy questions regarding current and future U.S.-Kurdish cooperation; and

the broader trajectory of the U.S.-Kurdish partnership.

U.S. military trainers and advisors have been based in KRG-controlled areas (along with other areas in Iraq) since 2014. The U.S. government has acknowledged that these advisors have periodically engaged in direct action missions in both Iraq and Syria. Since late 2015, U.S. officials have announced additional “advise and assist” deployments in Iraq and Syria.

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