The kurdish word peshmerga translates as “one who faces death.” It is an apt description for the ethnic militiamen who defend the Kurdish territory in Iraq’s rugged north. They are known as some of the Middle East’s most fearsome and dedicated fighters, qualities that are useful among a people who say they have “no friends but the mountains.” In a region where women often cannot hold jobs or drive cars, their devotion is evident in the females who wear fatigues and carry Kalashnikovs in frontline peshmerga units.
But even the peshmerga were no match for the fanatical jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) as they stormed into Kurdish areas of northern Iraq in early August. Fighting with U.S.-made weapons and armored vehicles seized from abandoned Iraqi army positions in June, ISIS routed the outgunned Kurds and advanced to within 20 miles (32 km) of the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Panic gripped the city’s 1 million residents, who are all too familiar with ISIS’s appetite for murder, beheading and crucifixion.
Days later, the Kurds stormed back—this time with American-supplied weapons and the help of U.S. drones and jets, which destroyed ISIS convoys and artillery. It was America’s first acknowledged attack in Iraq since the last U.S. troops left the country in December 2011 and, for Barack Obama, a day he’d tried hard to avoid. For weeks, Obama had refused to strike ISIS as the brutal al-Qaeda splinter group rampaged through northern Iraq and declared an Islamic caliphate spanning the Iraq-Syria border.
But Obama would not risk seeing Erbil fall. However much he hates returning to Iraq, Obama has decided that defending the Kurds is worth it. (He is also considering a small ground force to rescue thousands of ethnic Yezidis trapped on a mountain.) In doing so, he has opened a new chapter in the history of the U.S.’s fickle relationship with the beleaguered Kurds, one that could mark a major shift for the Middle East.
That’s because, having rescued the Kurds, Obama is now partnering with them. As American weapons flow to Erbil, Kurdish fighters and territory are proving critical to the U.S. effort to stop ISIS’s terroristic thugs. “Kurdistan provides a base from which we could run a major counterterrorism campaign against ISIS,” says Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution. After decades of struggling for U.S. attention, the Kurds finally have it.
Provide Comfort, Not Independence
a stateless mountain people might seem an unlikely partner in the fight against terrorism. But the Kurds may be America’s most reliable Middle Eastern ally outside of Israel—which is all the more striking given how often the U.S. has let them down.
The Kurds are among the world’s largest ethnic groups without their own state. Numbering around 25 million and with a distinct culture and language, they are clustered in the mountainous region where Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq converge. They are not Arabs but can claim the great Islamic warrior Saladin—a historic giant who repelled the European crusaders in the 12th century—as one of their own. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, sharing the faith of ISIS but none of the savage fundamentalism.
Woodrow Wilson was the first U.S. President to thrill the Kurds, with his talk of independent nations rising from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. But the U.S. later accepted European-drawn borders in the Middle East that remorselessly split up Kurdish land among four nations and rendered them a suspect minority in all.
As the Kurds struggled—sometimes violently—for independence throughout the 20th century, Washington lent no support, except when it was convenient. Henry Kissinger urged the Kurds to rebel against Saddam Hussein in 1972, when the U.S. was aligned with the Shah of neighboring Iran, only to abandon them when priorities changed. (“Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise,” a congressional panel later found.) Ronald Reagan ignored Saddam’s use of poison gas on the Kurds in 1987 and 1988 because Iraq was at war with the U.S.’s then enemy Iran.
And it was a small irony that the first American F/A-18 jets to strike ISIS positions near Erbil on Aug. 8 were launched from the deck of the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. It was the elder Bush who last rode to the Kurds’ rescue, saving them from another massacre at the hands of Saddam. The Kurds had risen up again after the 1991 Gulf War, prompting Saddam to use tanks and helicopters to slay them by the thousands. Some 750,000 Kurds fled into squalid mountain refugee camps. On April 6, 1991, the U.S. and its allies launched Operation Provide Comfort, which created a safe haven for the Kurds in northern Iraq enforced by fighter jets in the skies above.
It was one of history’s biggest humanitarian interventions. But the heroism was complicated by Bush’s responsibility for the crisis. The Kurds had rebelled only after Bush made unscripted public comments encouraging Iraqis to do so. The Kurds acted on the assumption that the U.S. military would be behind them. It was not. Like Obama, Bush had thought he was finished with Iraq and had no desire to become entangled there. But media images of starving women and children moved Bush to act. The safe zone he created endured and expanded over the next decade, providing the Kurds with something close to autonomy from Baghdad.
From Salvation to Transformation
the kurds had never looked quite as useful to the U.S. as they did in 2002, when George W. Bush planned to invade Iraq. The U.S. brought Kurdish leaders to a secret Virginia facility that summer to seek their help. The Kurds were initially suspicious that the U.S. might burn them yet again. But the prospect of toppling Saddam was too good to resist, and they offered intelligence and coordination. U.S. Special Forces even fought side by side with the peshmerga, who were seasoned from years of battle with Saddam’s military. But the Kurds soon learned that the U.S. plan for a post-Saddam Iraq did not include their independence. Washington did not want to tamper with the region’s borders, particularly when an important ally, Turkey—where Kurdish insurgents make territorial claims—was adamantly opposed.
As Iraq became a nightmare after 2003, the Kurds protected their borders and quietly built an oasis of calm and prosperity. Construction exploded, luxury hotels sprouted, and nightclubs and prostitutes proliferated. In a relatively secular society where women can sport skinny jeans and uncovered hair, designer clothes and luxury cars were soon available in Erbil. Kurds began referring to their region as “the other Iraq.” The Kurdish philosophy was, in effect, that success is the best revenge.
Driving this transformation was oil. It was always typical of Kurdish luck that they should live in an oil-rich region but reap none of the profit. That has changed. Although Saddam’s regime largely ignored Kurdistan’s oil reserves, his fall opened the door for energy multinationals like Chevron and ExxonMobil to flock to the politically stable and Western-friendly area. (So did thousands of Western workers, whose presence surely helped compel President Obama to take military action.) Kurdistan now produces about 10% of Iraq’s oil—more than 350,000 barrels per day.
Along with economic growth came vast autonomy. The Kurds have their own parliament and border guards, not to mention the peshmerga. But neither Baghdad nor Washington will grant the Kurds the full independence they have sought for a century. U.S. officials believe the breakup of Iraq will produce only more chaos and bloodshed. Framing it as a matter of Kurdish self-interest, U.S. officials also warn that because Iraq’s south produces so much oil, the Kurds stand to lose some $10 billion in annual shared revenue by going it alone. (The Kurds complain that Baghdad doesn’t distribute national oil revenue fairly and say they want to sell their local oil directly. Washington has blocked them.)
ISIS has changed the game. And so once more a U.S. President looks to Erbil for allies and advantage. “The Kurdish region is functional the way we would like to see,” Obama told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on Aug. 8. “It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it’s important to make sure that that space is protected.”
Those Who Face Death
protect it he has, with u.s. drones and fighter jets that have mounted dozens of strikes against ISIS forces threatening Kurdish population areas. In his Aug. 7 address to the nation, Obama said he was also acting to rescue thousands of Yezidis—members of an obscure, ancient religious sect—who were driven to the top of Mount Sinjar, 150 miles (240 km) west of Erbil, and surrounded by ISIS. Some U.S. air strikes, along with airdrops of food and water, were designed to prevent a possible “act of genocide” against the Yezidis, Obama said.
The Yezidi plight offered a compelling humanitarian rationale for action. (So did the need to protect U.S. diplomats and military advisers stationed in Erbil: an unchecked ISIS advance could have produced something exponentially worse than Benghazi.) But to many observers, what really drove Obama to act was a belief that Kurdistan is worth fighting for—and fighting with—in the newest front against Islamist terrorists. “We need to think about Kurdistan as a critical strategic asset in a region that is falling apart,” says Pollack. “It would be willing to host an American military presence that can give us a base to try and at least contain the violence sweeping the Mideast.”
That sort of effort could last indefinitely, perhaps resembling extended U.S. counterterrorism campaigns in places like Pakistan and Yemen, where U.S. air strikes support a local government’s troops. That approach, however, would likely appease few of Obama’s withering critics on the left and right. Some military commanders say defeating ISIS could require 15,000 U.S. ground troops. Liberals warn of a slippery slope toward quagmire. Nearly everyone seems to agree with Hillary Clinton, who told the Atlantic that Obama lacks a “clear strategy” for the Middle East beyond his motto of “Don’t do stupid sh-t.”
What it also means, more immediately, is a tighter bond between the U.S. military and the Kurdish forces, which may number up to 100,000. ISIS may have routed the peshmerga in early August, but analysts say the Kurds were poorly equipped and could not compete with ISIS’s captured, American-made Iraqi army gear. The peshmerga are “fully capable, given the right weapons, equipment and support, like air support, of stopping ISIS in their tracks, at least from the north,” says retired four-star general Anthony Zinni, a former chief of U.S. Central Command. U.S. military advisers are already coordinating air strikes with the peshmerga, says Fuad Hussein, a senior Kurdish regional government official. By Aug. 12, Kurdish fighters had already recaptured two towns from ISIS.
That is only a tiny step toward defeating ISIS, which boasts a force thought to be 10,000 strong. Stabilizing Iraq, meanwhile, is a project that will require the formation of a new government in Baghdad that can reunify Iraq and address the Sunni grievances that have allowed ISIS to flourish—a process that has proved excruciatingly slow as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tries to cling to power. The Kurds are now crucial to holding Iraq together, even if what they want is to leave Iraq.
But independence may seem like a luxury when ISIS is at the door, its men ready to tweet every new atrocity. Which is why the Kurds are willing to work with a U.S. that has burned them before. “We used to say Kurds don’t have any friends but the mountains,” Hussein says. “But that doesn’t ring true anymore.”
—with reporting by Mark Thompson and Jay Newton-Small/Washington
This appears in the August 25, 2014 issue of TIME.