Stories from Kurdistan

From Obama to Trump: U.S. Presidents and the Kurdish Rhetoric

The following article was submitted to The Kurdish Project by Haidar Khezri. Submit your story to The Kurdish Project.

On October 22, 2014, Sultan Muslim, a pregnant Kurdish woman fled from the besieged border city of Kobani to a Turkish refugee camp, where she gave birth to her newborn son, Obama Muslim. She named her baby Obama as a mark of gratitude towards President Obama for his standing alongside the Kurds and launching airstrikes aimed at stopping the Islamic States from taking over her hometown of Kobani in Western/Syrian Kurdistan.

Less than a month later, Kobani resident Ahmed Shehalo, also named his baby Obama. “Only Obama helped us in our time of need, so I named my son after him as a gesture of thanks,” said Ahmed Shehalo, known now as Abu Obama (the father of Obama). “Obama is difficult to pronounce. It doesn’t roll off the tongue,” Said Farida to her husband. However Ahmad reassured her that the name would soon become second nature. In a conversation with the correspondent, Dominique Soguel, Abu Obama has already lined up name for his future child, “If it is a girl, I will name her Michelle like Obama’s wife. If it is a boy, we will call him Peshmerga.”

On Thursday, August 7, 2016, President Obama announced authorization for limited airstrikes against ISIL in Southern/Iraqi Kurdistan, scrambling to avert the fall of the Kurdish capital, Erbil. President Obama also said that American military aircraft had dropped food and water to tens of thousands of Yazidi Kurds, who were trapped on the barren range of Mount Sinjar in Northwestern Iraq after their having fled the threat of ISIL. What President Obama did for the Kurds was symbolic for many of them. It used to be said that “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains;” many Kurds think it is the time to replace it with “no friends but the Americans.” All this was simultaneous with an increase in demand for Kurdish independence that finally resulted to a call for referendum on Kurdish independence on February 3, 2016, by Masoud Barzani, the President of Kurdistan Regional Government. However the U.S. position came differently from Kurdish expectations. “Again, we support Kurdish region as a part of Iraq. We supported its efforts, certainly considerable efforts, to fight Daesh and ISIL,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Thursday, March 24, 2016. Since then, Kurds have criticized the Obama administration’s policy toward Kurdish independence.

The same story has also taken place in Western/Syrian Kurdistan. For almost three years, Syrian Kurds with American air cover, weapons, and training have fought and died in battle against ISIL. Many Western volunteers, including Americans, have joined Syrian Kurdish forces, and the Kurdish female fighters have sensationalized social media and gained global support and appreciation from many Westerners. So while the Kurds in Syria were preparing to recapture the border town of Jarabulus in northern Syria, to complete their autonomous region through linking Afrin in the west, and Kobani, in the east; an unexpected Turkish intervention into northern Syria with American support shocked the Kurds the most. The shock was completed when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called on Syrian Kurdish militants to retreat east of the Euphrates River. Standing next to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in Ankara, Biden said: “We’ve made it absolutely clear” to the YPG that “they must move back across the river.” He continued, “They cannot – will not – under any circumstance get American support if they do not keep that commitment.” Since then, many Kurds felt that the U.S. has betrayed them. For the Kurds, the U.S. in particular has a history of abandoning them, such as was the case in the 1970s. Henry Kissinger, National Security Advisor to President Nixon, visited Tehran in May 31, 1972, and agreed to organize and secretly support a Kurdish rebellion under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, who had close ties with the Soviets, and with whom the Shah of Iran was having trouble. Yet soon after Iraq and Iran signed a border agreement, Iran and the U.S. cut off their support. Mustafa Barzani wrote to Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger saying, “His Excellency Dr. Henry Kissinger […], our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way with silence from everyone. We feel Your Excellency that the United States has a moral and political responsibility towards our people who have committed themselves to your country’s policy.” “Foreign policy,” remarked Kissinger, “should not be confused with missionary work.” Help never arrived, and Saddam crushed the rebellion, inflicting over 180,000 casualties. The story of Kissinger’s abandonment of the Kurds is mirrored in the actions of Joe Biden.

By the beginning of the 2016 U.S presidential elections, Kurdish issues had a notable place in debates and interviews with both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. The Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said that she favored continuing the Obama administration’s policy of funneling weapons to Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga, and also paid lip service to the Syrian Kurdish fighters by “considering” arming them. Back on December 4, 2014, Clinton also praised the Syrian Kurdish female fighters at a conference at the Georgetown University.

On the other hand, the link between President-elect Donald Trump and the Kurds has had a confusing start with some hope for clarity in the future. During a December rally in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Trump took a cavalier attitude toward Iraq’s use of chemical weapons under Saddam, “Saddam Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy, ‘oh he is using gas!’” The statement provoked reactions among Kurds, who made up the largest number of victims of the 1988 chemical weapons attack. On August 8, 2016, the Governor of Halabja in Kurdistan Regional Government demanded an apology from Donald Trump over those comments. During a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt in September 2015, Trump confused the Kurds for the Quds Force – the extraterritorial branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps – after Hewitt asked him what he thought of that branch’s leader, Qassem Soleimani. Trump asked for elaboration and then mistook ‘Quds’ for ‘Kurds’, adding that he sympathized with the Kurds who he said “have been horribly mistreated.” In several other events, Trump repeated his appreciation for the Kurds and back in July he called himself “a big fan of the Kurds.” On February 28th, he stated, “we should be using the ‘Kurdish’, we should be arming the ‘Kurdish’, they’ve proven to be the best fighters, they’ve really proven to be the most loyal to us.”

On the evening of November 8, 2016, just an hour after Donald Trump was declared as the President of the U.S., a Yazidi Kurdish couple named their newborn son “Trump.” “We have been going through a never-ending genocide over the last two years at the hands of ISIS, and Obama failed to take out ISIS or help liberate the thousands of Yazidi women and children that are still enslaved by ISIS,” said the father of Trump, to Haym Salomon Center. Along with their newborn, Trump, the parents hope to move to the U.S. Once there, they can join their other son, Dilbreen, who is receiving medical attention at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston after he was burned when a gas heater malfunctioned and fire broke out. Dilbreen was born 3 months after Obama Muslim in Sinjar Mountain using the food, water and shelter that President Obama prepared for him and thousands of other Kurdish families.

Only two weeks later, a Kurdish couple in the city of Barda Rash, north of Erbil, announced that they too had named their newborn baby child “Trump” in a show of support for the U.S. President-elect. The newborn’s father, Hassan Jamil, who is a member of the Peshmerga forces, in response to the reason of naming his baby Trump, said to NRT that he is confident that as President, Donald Trump’s policies “would be of benefit” to the Kurds. Being difficult to pronounce, not rolling off his tongue easily, the father of Kurdish Trump, mispronounced four times “Doland” for “Donald” in a video he shared, hoping that his son would become Peshmerga in the future.

Trump Kurdish

A Yazidi Kurdish couple named their newborn son Trump after President-elect Donald Trump. (Photo: Haym Salomon Center.)

Trump Kurdish

A Kurdish couple in the city of Barda Rash, north of Erbil named their newborn son Trump after President-elect Donald Trump. (Photo: NRT.)

The baby names weren’t the only things named after the president-elect, as the local Duhok Post reported “Trump Fish” recently opened in the city of Duhok, in Southern/Iraqi Kurdistan. The restaurant uses a cartoon version of Trump’s face as a logo. The owner of the restaurant hopes his famous name will help boost sales of seafood. The most recent case in this field is the opening of “Trump Restaurant” in the city of Kobani, in Western/Syrian Kurdistan on January 9, 2017.

Trump Kurdish

“Trump Fish” recently opened in the city of Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan. (Photo: Local Duhok Post.)

Trump Kurdish

“Trump Restaurant” recently opened in the city of Kobani, in Syrian Kurdistan. (Photo: Kurdistan 24 English.)

Between the chaos and absence of a unified position among the Kurds themselves in Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria toward the Kurdish question, the lack of interest among the political elite who design and direct U.S. foreign policy toward the Kurds, and the short-term, fair-weather relationship between Obama, Trump, Peshmerga, and Kurdish female fighters, no one should expect any change in the U.S. foreign policy toward the Kurds. Under the Trump administration, the Kurdish situation in Iraq and Syria will most likely remain on the same path that President Obama has set. While there is hope for some change in his administration’s policy toward the Kurdish situation in Iran as a result of his disagreement with the Iranian Deal and Iranian behavior in the region, no one should expect any changes in U.S foreign policy toward the Kurdish question in Turkey. This is true at least as long as Turkey is a member of NATO. In fact, the Kurds made up one of the largest affected people in the Middle East by President Trump’s “Executive Order”, and now more than ever find themselves between a rock of the totalitarian governments of the region on the one hand and a hard place of the right-wing populism governments with anti-immigration policies on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean on the other. It wouldn’t be in vain if it be said that the future of the Kurdish question under these circumstances depends on Kurdish Obamas and Trumps whose names reflect the hopes and dreams of the Kurdish people, rather than U.S. Presidents Obama and Trump.

If there is any hope for U.S. support for Kurds to become more substantial and stable, and spread fundamental and core American values, the U.S. must address more groups and issues beyond those of security and military needs. In order to create a maximally effective relationship with respect to those needs, the Peshmerga and their famous female fighters must be treated as more than just a buzzword to further individual politicians’ publicity campaigns. As for the Kurds themselves, they must lobby Washington, expand their reach beyond Capitol Hill and create an ad campaign in the U.S. to sway public opinion toward the Kurds instead of just demanding or expecting the U.S. to change its policy on its own. Perhaps the next Kurdish baby born can carry the name of one of the leaders of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights Movement, Labor Movement and so on. Such names may be easier to pronounce and more effective in drawing the attention of like-minded efforts with influence in Western media and public to the Kurdish question.

Follow Haidar Khezri on Twitter @HaidarCKhezri

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