How Serious Is Iraqi Kurdistan about Reviewing Ties with Washington?
US Not Seriously Opposing Iraqi Kurds’ Breakaway, Seeks Long-Term Interests
Alwaght- After a string of developments including the independence referendum, the Iraqi army and Popular Mobilization Forces' operation to retake the disputed regions that mainly quashed the Kurdish leader’s dream to split from Iraq and found independent Kurdish state, and very lately Masoud Barzani's disinclined resignation as president of the autonomous region of Kurdistan, Barzani made a bitter televised speech on October 29 in which he lashed out at the US. He criticized Washington for allowing the Abrams thanks supplied to the Iraqi forces to fight ISIS terrorists to be used against the Kurdish fighters.
“We did not expect that and we are now seriously seeking to review our relations with the US,” he further said.
He claimed that the American decline to help the breakaway bid left negative impact on the Kurdish public opinion in the northern Iraqi region, suggesting that Russia could make a better friend for the Kurds than the US.
With regard to Barzani’s influence on the Kurdish political stage even after his withdrawal from the presidency post, the question comes down that what is behind his new stance, especially possibility of shift to Moscow for new alliance?
Answering this question takes a flashback to the record of the American-Kurdish relations and the drives behind their alliance to the date.
Kurds and the US: alliance begins
Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 1991 invaded the neighboring Kuwait, inflaming what was known the First Persian Gulf War during which a coalition of Western forces led by the US launched a campaign to push the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. In the meantime, people revolted against Saddam in what was later named Shaabaniya Uprising. Meanwhile, the Kurds, backed by Washington, rose against the Iraqi Baathist ruler, who ruthlessly suppressed the movement, killing thousands of the Kurds of the north and displacing many more. Seeing what was happening to the Kurds, the US took some measures to check the Iraqi forces' advances into the Kurdish-inhabited regions of the country. Washington's pro-Kurdish efforts yielded a result as the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 688 which announced no-fly zone over the northern Iraqi territories. The US declared the no-fly zone to be in north of the 36th parallel to protect the Kurdish areas. The Kurds in Dahuk, Sulaymaniyah, and Erbil managed to establish their autonomous government after a parliamentary election held on May 19, 1991.
The success ushered in a period of even more serious relationship between the Kurds and Washington. Three years after gaining autonomy, the Kurds clashed at home, starting a civil war led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), two heavyweights of the Kurdish political stage. After four years of deadly conflict, the US mediated between the two parties in 1998. In the same year, Washington invited Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the leaders of KDP and PUK respectively, to visit Washington on September 17. The two sides reached an accord, labelled Washington Agreement, to put aside dispute and jointly govern the Kurdish areas.
But the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and toppling Saddam under cover of seeking to destroy Baghdad’s chemical weapons marked a new chapter of the Washington-Erbil alliance. Under the American support, the Kurds gained even broader and more recognized autonomy as they wrested from the central government concessions under the title of a federal region. It was noticeable enough that the Kurds' post-Saddam powers were out of reach without the US backing. Washington relations with Erbil became closer and more official as since 2005 Masoud Barzani assumed the power in the autonomous region.
In 2005, the Shiites rose to power in Baghdad, likewise, frustrating the American dream to see rise of an Iraqi government with promise of closeness to Washington. This provided the Americans with drive to resort to exploitation of the Kurds for influencing the post-war Iraqi politics as well as curbing growing Iranian influence in the country. Enjoying geopolitical position, rich natural and energy resources, and stable economic and security conditions, the Kurdish region provided the Americans with a suitable alliance party. After all, Kurdistan had the largest political minority with secular tendencies that offered an instrument to penetrate to the other regional Kurdish minorities in Iran, Turkey, and Syria if needs arisen. Having in mind that because of their need for building an independent state Kurds could be more in tune with the American goals and interests in the region, they rose out of status of a marginal ally to strategic one to the US.
Remarks of the Jay Garner, the Director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in the time of war, clarify the significance of the Kurdish region for the Americans. He noted that if the US influence efforts in Iraq fail, they should back the Kurd's independence. As the ties with Philippines served as the American platform to keep the Pacific, Kurdistan region in this century can provide Washington with platform to hold the Arab Middle East.
Independence referendum: Washington withholds support, Erbil discontented
In early June, the Kurdish leaders, spearheaded by Barzani and his family, set September 25 as the date for holding the secession vote, counting heavily on the American support with regard to the past alliance between the two sides. Essentially, the Kurds for keeping the balance of power with the central government, paving the way for setting up their own independent state, and finally realizing the dream of greater Kurdistan state need maximum support of a powerful international actor. But the US has come against the idea of the Kurdish independence in the current conditions. As a result, the Erbil leaders, who apparently miscalculated the Washington approach to the case of Kurdish split from Baghdad, have raised distrust to the Americans and the need to move towards Russia.
But the broad relations of the Kurds and the Americans over the past two decades and the Kurdish considering of the US as the main international actor capable of saving the previous Kurdish achievements in the face of challenges coming from the central government as well as the regional states give the idea that such Kurdish remarks are only aimed at putting strains on Washington to persuade the latter have the back of Erbil which is in a weak position on the negotiating table with Baghdad. By naming Russia, which rose to regional influence in past two years as a result of alliance with the Resistance camp after decades of silence, the Kurds firstly seek sending a warning message to the US telling it that they do not want to unilaterally work for the American interests in the region and secondly allure Moscow into closeness and adopting pro-Kurdish approach.