Policy toward independence referendum needs to change, US strategists say

Monday’s Kurdistan Independence Referendum proceeded even better than the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) expected: turn-out was high, and no violent incidents marred the event,

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – Monday’s Kurdistan Independence Referendum proceeded even better than the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) expected: turn-out was high, and no violent incidents marred the event, even in the ethnically mixed province of Kirkuk.

Such success is all the more noteworthy, as the Sep. 25 vote was held in the face of widespread regional and international resistance—which strong US opposition to the referendum seemingly helped to trigger.

Those strong statements against the referendum began relatively late, in mid-September, when Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter [the Islamic State], Brett McGurk, spoke in Erbil after the Kurdish leadership had rejected his plan for postponing the referendum.

The vote was scheduled for 11 days later, and campaigning was well-underway as massive rallies, regularly attended by tens of thousands of people, were being held throughout the Kurdistan Region.

On Sep. 14, in the capital of the Kurdistan Region, McGurk affirmed, “This referendum is ill-timed and ill-advised. It is not something that we can support.”

Until then, few outside powers had said anything about the vote, and regional opposition had been muted.

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani explained as much at the press conference which he held on Sunday, just before the referendum.

Asked if he was surprised at the strongly negative reaction to the scheduled vote, he replied, “To a certain extent.”

“In the beginning, the international position was that the timing was not appropriate,” he said.

“But the statements became stronger,” he continued, and as that happened, Bagdad’s opposition grew stronger as well.

Indeed, the same is true for Ankara. Prior to McGurk’s press conference in Erbil, Ankara had expressed its opposition to the referendum but refrained from making ominous statements.

On Aug. 23, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Erbil and echoed what was then the US position: the referendum was a “right of the people of the Kurdistan Region,” he stated, but “the timing” might cause problems.

Cavusoglu also said that Turkey would not close its border with the Kurdistan Region if the referendum proceeded.

In the last few days, however, that has changed radically, with Ankara making a variety of threats.

Michael Pregent, an Iraq expert at the Hudson Institute, explained publicly that McGurk had promised senior US officials that he could get the KRG to delay the referendum, while making similar assurances to Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran (Pregent confirmed to Kurdistan 24 that he really did mean to include Tehran.)

As Sep. 25 approached, McGurk grew even shriller. In a Sep. 22 press conference in New York, he stated that the referendum “carries an awful lot of risks.”

“[T]hat’s not something the United States can control,” he continued. “Other actors here will make their own decisions,” including Turkey.

Did McGurk really expect the KRG to call off the vote, with just three days to go? Yet, he practically invited Ankara to threaten the Kurdistan Region.

Turkey needs no permission from the US to threaten Kurds, but for the US to say it can do nothing about it merely adds fuel to the fire, as Kamran Karadaghi, press secretary to former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, described McGurk’s statements.

Turkey has now threatened to close the border, cut off Kurdish oil exports, and hinted at military action in concert with Iran, as well as Iraq.

Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst on Kurdish affairs, said McGurk’s statement was “unprecedented.” The US does not invite other countries to threaten its allies—particularly, in a region as volatile as the Middle East.

“It should not have happened,” Davis affirmed.

Now, however, with the referendum concluded, the question is what role should the US play?

On Monday, the State Department’s Iraq team met to consider that question. In the evening, the Department released a statement, saying the US was “deeply disappointed” by the referendum, but its “historic relationship with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region will not change.”

The US “opposes violence and unilateral moves by any party to alter boundaries,” the statement affirmed. Does that include opposition to the threats of military action against the Kurdistan Region coming from Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad?

The statement also affirmed that the US “supports a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.”

The referendum’s results have yet to be reported, but what if the people of the Kurdistan Region overwhelmingly support independence—as is expected? Will the US ignore that vote?

The US position on the Catalonian referendum, scheduled for October 1, is significantly different.

“This is an internal matter for Spain,” a State Department official told Kurdistan 24, even as the US supports “a strong and united Spain.”

Why isn’t the Kurdistan Independence Referendum also an “internal matter”?

A normally even-tempered Kurdish correspondent in Washington characterized the US position as “racist.”

Senior US strategists have begun to urge the administration to adapt to the post-referendum reality.

“Now that [the vote] has taken place,” writes Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador to Iraq, “the Trump administration needs to adjust its policy.”

“The Kurds will not reverse what took place,” states Khalilzad, who is in Erbil for the referendum. “Our interests will not be served by adopting a punitive course or a wait-and-see strategy.”

“The [US] cannot remain in denial that the Kurds are on an irreversible path to a Kurdish state,” Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, retired from the US Army, similarly advises.

“We can continue to resist the tide of Kurdish independence and rely on hope over reason,” he notes, but we would “once again have to live with the tragic consequences of American inaction.”

Like Khalilzad, Barbero advises that the US “accept the inevitable and shape the outcome of this process.”


Editing by G.H. Renaud