US mishandles Kurdistan Independence Referendum

As the Sep. 25 Kurdish Independence Referendum approaches, for the first time since 2003, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Washington are at odds.

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – As the Sep. 25 Kurdish Independence Referendum approaches, for the first time since 2003, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Washington are at odds.

Until mid-July, it seemed the Trump administration would be neutral in regard to the referendum.

On June 29, Spokesperson Heather Nauert stated that it was “an internal Iraqi matter.”

Similarly, on June 19, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said that the issue should be “worked out between President Barzani, Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi people.”

Indeed, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency had earlier told Congress that the Kurds were likely to emerge as an independent entity: it was “probably not if, but when.”

Standing against the inevitable, or at least the likely, is, most often, not a good idea. Most often, the US seeks "to manage” such things. And if you are going to do so, the effort should be well-planned and properly resourced.

Nonetheless, in mid-July, Washington began to take a stance against the referendum, as Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, Brett McGurk, told reporters that the US objected to the timing of the referendum.

In the two months since, however, the Kurdish leadership has received no reply to the question: when is the right time? Moreover, when pressed by reporters to explain whether the problem is the timing of the referendum or the referendum itself, McGurk will not answer.

Suspicions arise that he really intends to block the referendum altogether.

This is not the first time that Washington has asked the Kurds to avoid the question of independence.

Most recently, in 2014, the request came from Vice-President Joe Biden (who told this reporter that KRG President Masoud Barzani was “a personal friend.”)

“If it doesn’t work out, we will never again tell you to go back to Baghdad and join the government,” Biden said then. “This is the last time. Just give it one more chance.”

Planning for the referendum was well underway when McGurk arrived last week in the Kurdistan Region. Independence rallies were being held throughout the region, drawing huge crowds.

That impressed Ali Khedery, who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2009 as Special Assistant to five US ambassadors. Subsequently, Khedery became an Exxon-Mobil executive and negotiated its entry into the Kurdistan Region when Rex Tillerson headed the company.

“Western officials' hearts should be warmed by the democratic spirit gripping Kurdistan,” Khedery tweeted. “We should support their aspirations.”

McGurk, nonetheless, presented the Kurdish leadership an ultimatum: cancel the referendum or else. They told him to take a hike!

Or as two scholars wrote in Tuesday’s Washington Post, President Barzani “did not conceal his frustrations over US behavior and declared that the referendum will go on.”

An informed source close to the KRG explained the disconnect between US policy and Kurdish reality in terms of the administration’s crowded agenda and the lack of staffing of senior State Department positions.

The White House is preoccupied with its priorities: North Korea, Iran, Russia and domestic issues, like tax reform and health care. And senior positions in the State Department, like Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Undersecretary, etc. are vacant.

So McGurk—who is exclusively envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition—has stepped into the vacuum. He lacks the authority to offer significant incentives, so he presents “these small sticks.”

“The more sticks he offers, the more aggravated the Kurdish leadership gets, and the more fixed they become on the referendum.”

McGurk claims that the referendum should be postponed because it will interfere with the fight against the Islamic State.

However, Michael Pregent, an Iraq expert at the Hudson Institute, who frequently travels to the region, dismissed that as “ridiculous.”

Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst of Kurdish affairs, characterized McGurk’s claim as “an excuse,” explaining that the Kurds “are the only force that has consistently fought” IS.

Pregent detailed the importance to the US of Kurdish loyalty. When Special Operations Forces plan raids against high-value targets, they stage from Kurdish-territory.

They are concerned that their plans might leak if operations are prepared in Baghdad-controlled areas.

Pregent also explained that significant elements of Iraq’s political leadership perceive McGurk to be biased in favor of the sectarian Shiite parties—“a spokesperson” for al-Dawa.

The Hudson Institute scholar also complained of McGurk’s “obfuscation” of the role that Shiite militias, under the control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have played in the fight against IS.

“Iraq has fallen into the Iranian sphere of influence,” Pregent lamented.

Following McGurk’s forceful articulation of opposition to the referendum, other parties have followed suit, including Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.

As a lawyer, McGurk lacks the experience of virtually any long-term Middle East expert, which is to wake up in the morning to learn that some disaster has occurred over there, overnight.

It is not impossible that McGurk has lit the fuse of the next conflict by giving the impression that the US would not object strongly to military action against the Kurdistan Region.

“If the Kurds are attacked, they will defend themselves,” the informed source told Kurdistan24. “They are not powerless.”

Hopefully, though, that will not happen. If not, then Pregent believes that assuming the referendum results turn out as anticipated, “it will change minds in Washington.”

“That’s why there is such a push against the referendum,” he said. 


Editing by G.H. Renaud