On Thursday, Brett McGurk, US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, travelled to Duhok with the US ambassador to Baghdad and US Consul General in Erbil in tow, as well as the British ambassador to Iraq and the UN Special Representative for Iraq.
They journeyed to Duhok in northern Kurdistan Region to meet the President of the Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani. Those details alone say a lot.
President Barzani was not overly keen to meet them. Otherwise, he would have welcomed them in Erbil. However, they were eager to meet him. Hence, they went the extra mile, as it were.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has retained the State Department as the lead agency on issues involving the Kurdistan Region. And McGurk has established himself as the key figure in mobilizing opposition to the Kurdish Independence Referendum, in Washington and elsewhere.
Indeed, McGurk has at times in recent weeks, even gone beyond what he is authorized to say.
The official US position on the referendum is “not now.” However, McGurk has occasionally gone further—to simply “not”—upsetting officials at the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, which oversees Iraq.
True to form, McGurk in a press conference at the end of his visit, proclaimed, “This referendum is ill-timed and ill-advised. It is not something we can support.”
He also presumed to speak in the name of the “entire” 69 member coalition which the US has recruited to fight the Islamic State.
“There is no international support for the referendum, really, from anybody,” McGurk said.
Really? Saudi Arabia has said nothing publicly. But Saudi-backed media, like Asharq al-Awsat, have published friendly reports about the referendum.
Almost certainly, that reflects Saudi concern about Tehran’s dominance in Baghdad, while the United Arab Emirates shares those concerns.
Moreover, the recent endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the referendum was not mentioned, although the Prime Minister had just issued a statement supporting “the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state.”
Doubtless, Netanyahu recalls that the State Department opposed Israeli independence in 1948—but President Harry Truman chose to override that. In fact, the State Department opposes almost all efforts at independence—as it did in Yugoslavia.
That only prolonged the bloodshed. Out of Yugoslavia, six independent states emerged, now UN members, recognized by the international community. A Brett McGurk then might have said they had no international legitimacy. But now they do!
As Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Region Security Council has said, “Rights are never given anywhere. They are taken.”
It is difficult to imagine a US official speaking those words, but there is a profound difference between the Kurdish leadership and most US leaders (those with serious military experience are probably more like the Kurds.)
The lifetime experience of a figure like President Barzani, as well as his historical memories, are very different from that of Americans.
President Barzani spent the major part of his life as a fighter for Kurdish rights. That struggle culminated in the spring of 1991 after President George H.W. Bush called a ceasefire in the Gulf War and then gave Saddam Hussein the green light to crush the Kurdish and Shiite rebellions that followed.
On March 26, 1991, the White House spokesman announced that the US would not shoot down Iraqi helicopters (despite a US-imposed ban on Iraqi aircraft) and Bush left for vacation in Florida.
Iraq’s Republican Guards then bore down on the Kurdish population, which fled to the mountains, fearing Saddam’s chemical weapons.
In 1993, along with Kamran Karadaghi, at the time a journalist with al-Hayat, I interviewed Masoud Barzani. He recounted the battle at Korre that had stopped Saddam two years before.
“We were in danger of losing our country,” he said. “I was very depressed, and I vowed that I would not leave Kurdistan. I will die here.”
There, as they fired at the advancing Iraqi column, an RPG hit its mark. On the mountain road, the disabled tank blocked the Iraqis’ forward movement.
How many senior US officials have ever put their lives on the line, for anything?
McGurk is a lawyer by training. His experience with Iraq began in 2004 when he was Legal Advisor to Paul Bremer and continued thereafter. To say that Iraq failed is to say that McGurk failed.
Kurds have begun to speak of “McGurk of Arabia.” But that would be unfair to T.E. Lawrence.
Lawrence was steeped in the culture of the people with whom he worked, and he was a consistent advocate of self-determination: for the Arabs vs. the British and for the Kurds vs. the Arabs.
Lawrence opposed including the Kurds in Iraq!
McGurk arrived in Kurdistan with an “alternative path” to the referendum, which he presented to President Barzani, as well as the other Kurdish political parties.
The President’s office subsequently issued a statement saying the issue must be “a collective decision” and the Kurdish political leadership would meet soon to consider it.
However, at a rally later that day in Zakho, attended by tens of thousands of supporters of the Independence Referendum and filling the local soccer stadium, President Barzani expressed his differences with the US envoy.
He affirmed that the referendum would take place as scheduled unless the Kurds were offered a better choice than what is planned for Sep. 25.
He also slammed recent laws passed by Iraq’s parliament against the referendum, including the toothless sacking of the Governor of Kirkuk, Dr. Najmaldin Karim.
The Arab majority rides roughshod over Kurdish rights, he explained. Whatever they want, “they color with parliament’s paint and impose it on us in the name of law,” he stated.
The Kurdish leadership has difficult decisions ahead, but they are made of much sterner stuff than US bureaucrats.
Laurie Mylroie is a Washington DC correspondent for Kurdistan 24.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by G.H. Renaud