WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan24) – The US position toward Kurdish independence is slowly shifting.
On Thursday, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert described the referendum on Kurdish independence as “an internal Iraqi matter.”
The State Department has been a bastion of America’s long-standing “one-Iraq” policy. That is partly a function of the Department’s own biases. As its name implies, it is oriented toward states.
It is also a function of the Bureau under which the Kurdistan Region falls: Near Eastern Affairs. Most of the countries that fall under its purview are Arab, and it has long been known for its orientation toward them.
Thus, Nauert’s remark on Thursday marks a significant advance in the State Department’s attitude toward Kurdish political aspirations.
Her comment came in a longer answer to a question about the US position on the referendum. “We would like to see” the Islamic State (IS) defeated, she replied. “Then, once Iraq has stabilized and people can go back to their homes, a referendum—if Iraq decides to do that, if the Kurds decide to do that—that would be an internal Iraqi matter.”
That language stands in contrast to the State Department’s position a mere three weeks ago, the last time that the issue of the independence referendum arose during a press briefing.
Following that briefing, the State Department Press Office distributed a written statement that began, “The United States supports a unified, federal, stable, and democratic Iraq”—language that signaled a continued commitment to a “one-Iraq” policy.
That statement then went on to say, “We understand and appreciate the legitimate aspirations of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan.”
The first sentence contradicted the second, however. The statement, in its entirety, left the impression that the State Department believed the referendum should be postponed to an unspecified time in the future. As such, it was indistinguishable from opposition to the referendum, particularly given its stress on the importance of a “unified” and “federal” Iraq—language that was absent three weeks later, when Nauert again characterized the US position.
The State Department’s new position brings it much closer to the Pentagon’s position, which was articulated, most recently and most authoritatively, by General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s top military officer.
Two weeks ago, speaking at the National Press Club, Dunford was asked his view of the independence referendum.
“Our stated objective at this point is a stable, secure, and sovereign Iraq,” Dunford said. “We’re supporting Iraqi security forces in defeating ISIS inside of Iraq.”
“I think the issue of the Kurdish referendum is one that will have to be worked out between President Barzani and Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi people,” he added.
Dr. Bilal Wahab, a Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, whose work focuses on the Kurdistan Region, and who himself is from the Kurdistan Region, recently remarked that what the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) hopes to get from Washington is neutrality.
And that is what Dunford expressed.
When the US is involved in a conflict zone—like Iraq—the presence of the military dwarves that of all other US agencies, including the State Department. There are simply more soldiers in Iraq than there are diplomats.
The US military recognizes that to establish stability after defeating an enemy like IS, it is necessary to stand up a political authority acceptable to the local population. After all, it was the extreme sectarianism of the previous Iraqi government that generated the dissatisfaction among Sunni Arabs which paved the way for IS.
In such circumstances, the military is likely to understand popular sentiment better than any other government agency.
A month ago, the Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, and the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Asked what the implications of a Kurdish declaration of independence would be, Coats deferred to Stewart.
Stewart explained that Kurdish independence “is on a trajectory, where it is probably not ‘if,’ but 'when.'”
The “greatest challenge” to the Baghdad government, he said, will be “to reconcile the differences between the Shia-dominated government, the Sunnis out west, and the Kurds in the north.”
“Failure to address these challenges,” Stewart warned, “will ultimately result in conflict among all of the parties,” which could deteriorate into “civil strife” in Iraq despite IS’ military defeat.
Presumably, it is an intelligence assessment like that on which Dunford’s view of the independence referendum is based, and, perhaps, even helps to explain the State Department’s evolving position.