Trump needs a ‘Balfour moment’

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President Trump’s unforced error by redeploying troops in Syria undermines what otherwise might become an impressive legacy in foreign policy, but it’s not game over. The president could bounce back, and shock the world, by following the example set by the late British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, who on Nov. 2, 1917, altered the course of history in just 67 words. By announcing his government’s support for a Jewish homeland, Balfour set in motion a slow process leading to the birth of modern Israel. 

President Trump could do the same for the Kurds. 

Understandably, support for a Kurdish state would be met with widespread opposition. With the exception of Israel, every country opposes Kurdish independence. But President Trump’s policies impacting the Jewish State demonstrate a willingness to resist popular opinion and do what’s right in the Middle East.

Going against the judgment of European counterparts, the president withdrew from an Iran Deal that breathed life into an Iranian economy squeezed by sanctions and kept Israel in a well-funded Hezbollah’s crosshairs. Further, President Trump not only moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, acknowledging the city as Israel’s capital, but also recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights

For the Kurds, the president could make an equally bold move. A short communique affirming the Kurdish right to sovereign self-determination would go a long way. 

While such an announcement would break the status quo and cause uproar in the four states largely containing the contiguous Kurdish population, the president could keep things vague and take no position on how the borders should be drawn. After all, Lord Balfour did not provide a map or define borders. Without naming which countries might lose land, the president could contain pushback. He could even one-up Balfour in brevity and make the announcement in 280 characters or less

Supporting Kurdish statehood could both help restore the moral standing the United States lost and protect it when attacked for other foreign policy positions. For example, recognizing the need for a Kurdish state and taking modest exploratory steps would shield the president from future criticism over delayed efforts in working toward a Palestinian State. After all, sovereign self-determination for nearly 30 million Kurds should take precedence over that of, at most, 5 million Palestinians. 

There also would be strategic benefits. A “Balfour declaration” for the Kurds would put Turkey on notice that the United States will respond to its hostility. From President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bodyguards beating up protestors on U.S. soil in 2017 to purchasing military equipment from Russia, Turkey does things unimaginable for other NATO members. The United States must do something unimaginable back. Tyrants such as Erdoğan understand tit-for-tat. 

Besides, the specter of a rabidly anti-Kurdish Turkish government may prove ephemeral owing to the growing demographic strength of Kurds in Turkey; some estimates suggest they could become the majority population within a generation. It’s best to start solidifying good relations now, because a Kurdish state may ultimately be inevitable. It’s unlikely that Turks would want to be a minority in a binational state, and a peaceful referendum could eventually resolve the matter. 

The perception that President Trump betrayed the Kurds might seem like an insurmountable obstacle to getting relations back on track. It isn’t. This is demonstrated by the history of early British-Israeli relations. Despite the Balfour Declaration, the British subsequently harmed the Jewish people in ways incomparable to Trump’s treatment of Syrian Kurds, but close ties  nonetheless were forged. 

First, Israel’s prospective territory was substantially diminished when the British split Jordan off from Mandatory Palestine in 1921. Then, the 1939 White Paper capped Jewish immigration in the remaining territory, denying millions of European Jews a place of refuge from Nazi Germany. In Israel’s 1948 war of independence, the British sided with Israel’s enemies, providing considerable assistance to Egypt and Jordan. Ultimately, however, the United Kingdom recognized Israel, and relations improved to such an extent that in 1956, the two countries joined with France in capturing the Suez Canal and the Sinai Peninsula. 

If Israel could reconcile with the United Kingdom, getting back on the path to robust U.S.-Kurdish relations should not be too difficult. The mere endorsement of a Kurdish state should be enough to start a new chapter. By following the example set by Lord Balfour, President Trump could restore America’s position in the Middle East as moral actor, rebuild relations with an important population, and balance an emerging adversary.

Matthew Mainen is a fellow at the Middle East Forum. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewMainen.

Tags Arthur Balfour Donald Trump Kurdish nationalism Kurdish population Kurds Middle East

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