Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

America betrays the Kurds again

Behind Washington’s rejection of Kurdistan’s independence lies an important shift, writes Salah Nasrawi


Iraqi oil worker opens up a new refinery at Shouaibiya in Basra
Iraqi oil worker opens up a new refinery at Shouaibiya in Basra

Even before President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani declared in June that he planned an independence referendum later this year, Washington made it clear that its old ally must not expect US support for the Kurds’ secession from Iraq.

The United States joined the United Nations and an array of regional and world nations in taking Baghdad’s side in the dispute and urged Barzani to scrap the 25 September unilateral referendum.

Acting on an unprecedented scale, the White House, State Department and Defence Department each publicly opposed the Kurdish vote. The Central Intelligence Agency also reportedly tried to put pressure on the KRG leadership to have second thoughts.

Yet, Barzani brushed aside all objections and went on to present the referendum for breaking away from Iraq as a fait accompli. He even blamed Washington’s opposition for Baghdad’s tough stance on the poll.

Moreover, Barzani’s supporters accused US envoy to the international anti-terrorism coalition Brett McGurk, who had been vocal in rejecting the vote, of betraying the Kurds, likening him to former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger whom the Kurds accuse of selling them out to former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Barzani’s defiant posture caused bristling anger among administration officials who expressed concerns that the referendum would undermine the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson blasted the poll as “illegitimate” and said Washington would not recognise the independence referendum in Kurdistan and would continue to support “a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.”

Yet, Washington’s anger did not end with the condemnation of the vote, and it showed signs that it could go on the offensive diplomatically to keep Barzani’s ambitions in check.

Reports have surfaced that the US government has stopped paying the KRG’s Peshmerga fighters’ salaries after an agreement expired over the summer. Under the deal negotiated by the former Obama administration in July 2016, Washington agreed to pay stipends to some 36,000 Peshmergas to lure them into doing battle against IS in Iraq.

The agreement was expected to be renewed over the summer for another year, but the Trump administration has showed no interest in renewal after the KRG pursued the controversial referendum on secession.

It therefore seems that Barzani made a serious miscalculation by embarking on a risky and unchecked escalation in a volatile region where the United States feels it has too many interests at stake.

In the run-up to the referendum, spokesmen for Barzani repeatedly told the international media that US statements opposing the poll were pro forma and that behind the scenes they had guarantees of Washington’s support.

This could be either the result of overconfidence or simply falling into a trap set by some American interlocutors who seem to have mislead Barzani, compounding the Kurdish leader’s inability to accurately gauge the administration’s reaction.

The KRG hired several former top US officials and diplomats such as former UN ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Peter Galbraith, an ex-envoy to Serbia, to work as paid advisers to Barzani and to lobby the US administration on the KRG’s behalf.

Using expensive PR firms, these and other middlemen lobbied intensively to sell Barzani’s push for independence to the US media and in Washington’s political corridors.

They seem to have created the impression with Barzani that Washington would not torpedo the Kurdish dream of independence as it has done several times over the past century.

What happened, however, is that these former US diplomats turned political lobbyists, together with the self-promoting French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, widely blamed for the chaos in Libya, simply misled Barzani and made him also misread Washington.

Some history:

For decades, the Kurds of northern Iraq have maintained a close relationship with the United States, which has vacillated between using the Kurds and supporting their national aspirations.

After World War One, the United States abandoned then US president Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination, which the Kurds had hoped would support their quest for statehood, after allies gave Washington a share in Iraq’s oil concessions.

In 1961, the United States and Britain supported a Kurdish rebellion against the anti- Western Iraqi leader Abdel-Karim Qassim, who was toppled by a US-backed coup two years later forcing them to shift support to the new Baath Party regime that had toppled Qassim.  

In 1972, when the Baath Party regime became a threat to its interests Washington began funding and arming the Kurdish rebellion in Iraq. The Kurds felt that their big opportunity had come for an all out attack and break-away from Iraq.  

A major milestone came in 1975, when Kissinger stopped US support for Kurdish rebels after Iraq signed the US-backed Algiers Agreement with Iran. By then, the Iraqi Kurds had realised that Washington had betrayed them in favour of its regional geostrategic interests, again paying dearly for that misplaced trust.

In 1991, the US imposed a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan, preventing further repression of the Kurds by Saddam. The US also played a role in establishing the anti-Saddam opposition based in Kurdistan.

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted in close cooperation between the leadership of the self-ruled Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq and US forces in toppling Saddam’s government in Baghdad.

After the rise of the IS in 2014, the US supplied the Kurdish Peshmergas with funds and huge arsenals of weapons, but the controversial vote for independence was the last thing Washington wanted in forging its post-IS Middle East strategy.

Obviously, Barzani and other Kurdish leaders have again got things wrong in their understanding of America’s Middle East policies, although there was no shortage of warnings from the Trump administration that the Iraqi Kurds would not enjoy US support.

With many regional conflicts now raging in the Middle East, Washington’s preferences seem to have been elsewhere rather than nurturing Barzani’s dream of becoming the first president of an independent Kurdistan.

As the war against IS in Iraq and Syria is ebbing, the United States is entering into a new era of fierce competition for influence in the Middle East with Russia and Iran.

This will represent a huge challenge for US policy-makers in dealing with tectonic geostrategic shifts from the past that will require Washington to preserve its assets in any future struggle.

The US priority in Iraq is clear: to keep the country stabile and to solidify its power in Syria in order to confront Moscow and Tehran’s increasing regional influence. Washington would have expected their longtime Kurdish allies to contribute to this strategy and not to try to tear it apart.

Trump’s new hardline strategy towards Iran, partially unveiled this week, shows that Washington does not want this policy to be disturbed by a broader regional conflict that could lead to the break-up of Iraq with all the devastating consequences that this could have in the region and beyond.

Therefore, while the realities of regional power did not obey Barzani’s new independence blueprint (as they did in the past), his false assessment of current American policy was another abysmal failure.

Of course, the Iraqi Kurds will continue to accuse the United States of “betraying” their cause, but it is clear that the Kurdish leadership has made a lot of wishful thinking in relying on Washington’s support.

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