Why the US chose to oppose the Kurdish independence referendum

The US now finds itself in the awkward position of being on the same side as Iran.

KURDISH PEOPLE attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Duhuk, Iraq. (photo credit: REUTERS)
KURDISH PEOPLE attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Duhuk, Iraq.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iraqi Vice President Nuri al-Maliki joined the chorus opposing a Kurdistan independence referendum.
“We will not allow the creation of a second Israel in the north of Iraq,” he said on Sunday.
Maliki’s allies in Iran have also threatened the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, pressuring it to cancel the September 25 referendum.
The US, which opposes the referendum, now finds itself in the awkward position of being on the same side as Iran.
The US position on Kurdish aspirations for independence from Iraq has been contradictory. Historically, Washington has supported self-determination in places such as South Sudan, Kosovo and East Timor as they sought independence. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt made this value central to the war effort. The UN enshrined the principle of “equal rights and self-determination of peoples” in its charter. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized these values in a speech to a meeting of the Community of Democracies in Washington. “We must support emerging democracies in the struggle to become nations that respect human rights regardless of ethnicity,” he said.
A key ally of the US against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and against the Iraqi insurgency and Islamic State, Kurds have been trying since June to convince Washington to apply this view to their region.
Hopes were dashed when the White House released a statement on Friday saying the US “does not support the Kurdistan Regional Government’s intention to hold a referendum.”
US Special Presidential Envoy to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk went further in a press conference in Erbil, asserting: “There is no international support for the referendum, really, from anybody.” He described the referendum as “ill-timed and ill-advised” and “risky.”
Why has the US taken this stand, when it could have remained silent on the issue, as it has done with the controversial referendum in Catalonia?
Kurds had high hopes for the administration of Donald Trump. One man even named his fish store after the president. In May, Kurdistan Region Security Council Chancellor Masrour Barzani met with Jared Kushner and H.R. McMaster.
KRG President Masoud Barzani authored a piece in The Washington Post in June arguing that Baghdad had not adhered to the post-2003 constitution.
An independent Kurdistan would be a great neighbor to Iraq, “cooperating against terrorism and sharing resources,” he wrote. “We ask that the United States and the international community respect the democratic decision of Kurdistan’s people.”
A person familiar with the administration’s view explained that Trump’s team had already set priorities for national security crises, and those involved Iran, North Korea and Russia. They preferred that Kurdish issues be put off until after the upcoming Iraqi elections. They feared that moves by Kurdistan could distract from efforts to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq and unite Sunni and Shi’a Arabs against Kurds. They didn’t reject the referendum but suggested postponing it.
The problem is that Barzani had heard that before, in 2008, from US ambassador Ryan Crocker and other US officials, who always suggested more dialogue.
The administration already had problems with Turkey over its support of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria, who were its main partners fighting ISIS. For the administration the KRG referendum was another headache and would distract from the war on ISIS.
Because the Kurds are a close ally of the US, receiving more than $400 million in direct aid to their Peshmerga armed forces in a July 2016 agreement, the US expects them to toe the line. This is similar to the US-Israel relationship, in which the US is a close ally but also expects cooperation and sometimes gives “tough love.” In a July meeting between US Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman and Masoud Barzani, the US emphasized that support for the KRG would continue.
This puts the US in a bind. The administration wants to stabilize Iraq without playing into Iran’s hands. Iranian-backed Shi’a militias have been an official part of the Iraqi security forces since 2016. The US is attached to the status quo in Iraq, as it is when dealing with Jerusalem. Coupled with more pressing crises in North Korea and the Iran deal, Washington thinks the Kurds can wait.
Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that the administration could consider issuing a kind of “Balfour Declaration,” asserting that “the US government views with favor the self-determination of the Kurds, not talking about specific territories or Iraqi politics.” That would offer a vague notion that the US is open to exploring the referendum next year, he argued.
There may be a silver lining. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote that the threats and pressure against the referendum may not change anything the day after. “The Kurdistan independence referendum may be... anticlimactic afterward.”