US Foreign Policy Towards Kurdistan
Dr Mohammed Shareef is a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (London). He has worked for the UN and is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sulaimani in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Mohammed completed his PhD in International Relations at the University of Durham and has an MSc in International Relations from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. His research interests range from US foreign policy towards Iraq and the Kurds to US policy towards the Middle East in general. He is the author of the book «The United States, Iraq and the Kurds: Shock, Awe and Aftermath» which was published by Routledge on 12 March 2014.
Q: How would you characterize US policy towards Kurds in the past few decades? What is your book’s finding on that?
A: My book contends that, while the US does have an Iraq policy, it also has a de facto policy towards Iraq’s Kurds. And although America’s policy towards the Iraqi Kurds is not formally articulated nor pronounced, the very nature of US interaction with the Kurdish movement, having evolved over time makes US Kurdish policy a tangible and observable reality.
Secondly, my book argues that US policy towards the Kurds is consistent. A policy is a vision, a view and a goal. US foreign policy towards the Kurds has been for the most part consistent in its goals. What could also be argued is that different strategies have been pursued, adopted and then adjusted to achieve these goals. In essence what has changed are the strategies (what to do?) and tactics (how to do it?) when it has come to issues of US foreign policy relating to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Finally, the book argues that there has been an evolution in the nature of the American-Kurdish relationship. As the book covers US-Kurdish relations from 1961 till present, it identifies four major phases. Phase one: 1961-1971, characterised by <contacts> – essentially unilateral Kurdish attempts to gain US support, but to no avail. Followed by the second phase, 1972-1975, a <covert relationship> demonstrated in secret US support through its CIA intelligence agency. And phase three, 1991-2004, an <overt relationship>, following the mass exodus of the Kurds consequence of the failed Kurdish uprising. Finally evolving into an overt <institutionalised relation¬ship> embodied in an official but undeclared US Kurdish policy from 2005 till present. This phase commenced after the Iraqi constitution was adopted after a national referendum.
Essentially, the place of the Iraqi Kurds in US foreign policy ends up being re-negotiated all the time. It is an ongoing subject of negotiation; based partly on what is happening in Baghdad, partly on regional alliances, partly on how the US sees its longterm role in Iraq and the Gulf. In many ways the policy towards the Kurds has been a ‘dependant variable’. The Kurds are vulnerable; their status has not changed as regards the inter¬national context of the Middle East. When needed, as a pawn they gain value, when redundant they are insignificant, but overall they remain an asset to the US in a hostile region.
Q: How does US policy towards Iraq differ from its policy toward Kurdistan?
A: US policy towards the Iraqi Kurds is part of American policy towards Iraq, which is part of US policy towards the Middle East, which is part of US foreign policy at the global level.
With regards to US interests in Iraq, there are five major areas of concern that have dominated US–Iraq relations since 1979 and beyond: a secure supply of oil, concerns about Iraqi sponsorship of ter¬rorism, the proliferation of WMD, the containment of Iran and Iraq’s role in the Arab-Israeli dispute.
Accordingly, US policy towards the Iraqi Kurds is restricted to six major components. The US policy position is one of finding a political solution within Iraq’s national boundaries. It is US policy that the Iraqi government and the Kurds would be able to come promptly to a mutually satisfactory agreement. The US does not contemplate a policy towards the Kurds that could allow for an independent state. Its policy towards the Kurds is always one in which the Kurds are part of a greater Arab Iraq, with Baghdad as its capital. Second, the Kurdish issue is perceived
as strictly an internal Iraqi matter. This US policy of neutrality has also remained largely unaltered. The third constant, the US sees validity and legitimacy in Kurdish demands merely on sympathetic grounds, not on the grounds of vital US interests. The fourth constant: the US perceives its relations and interests with Arab Iraq as being far superior to its sympathies for Kurdish nationalist aspirations. The fifth constant, the United States considers Kurdish nationalist aspirations as maximalist; they have constantly advised compromise. A sixth factor is the US interest in maintain¬ing stability in Iraq and the Middle East. The US advises the Kurds to avoid being used as agents for interests of others.
Q: What is your advice to Kurdish leaders on how to proceed in their relations with the US?
A: The Kurdistan Region already has a representation in the United States. However, this is not enough. The Kurds should be more active diplomatically in Washington. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representation has been without a representative since June 2012. This is a major diplomatic blunder by any standard, especially so at this hugely critical time in Kurdish history.
Other than diplomatic relations, the Kurdish leadership should also advance its economic and trade relations with the USA. The establishment of the United States Kurdistan Business Council in April 2012 was a significant step in this direction. But this should not be solely restricted to oil companies. All types of US companies should be encouraged to invest and participate in the rebuilding of Kurdistan.
At the cultural level the KRG should also increase interaction with America. The establishment of The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani in October 2007 was a step in the right direction. As for the Kurdish students studying abroad on scholarships of the KRG>s Human Capacity Development Programme, I would suggest sending more than half of them to the US, as increased economic and cultural interaction will ultimately impact political and military relations.
Q: Given the close relationship between Kurds and the US in the past decade or so, what would the US stance possibly be, if the Kurds decided to declare independence?
A: The United States wants to maintain stability in Iraq and the Middle East. For this reason, the unity of Iraq is perceived to serve this purpose. America believes that an independent Kurdistan will become a source of instability in the region. The main reason the US does not support Kurdish independence is that it supports Turkish integrity and believes that a Kurdish declaration of independence will cause a war in the region. Furthermore, it believes with Kurdish independence, there would be blowback in Turkey among its large Kurdish population, leading to the destabilisation of the country. The US government is very attuned to Turkish sensitivities, and that will always be an inhibiting factor – that is the main reason US policy will aim to keep Iraq one country.
For these reasons, Kurdistan cannot achieve independence right now, as there is no support for such a move in Washington. However, the ground has been prepared. The United States used to be against Kurdish independence, but the reasons for this US opposition no longer remain. America knows Iraq is in crisis. Washington is now psychologically accepting that Iraq has the potential of breaking up. Washington now also understands this is what Iraqi Kurdistan really wants. Given previous American thinking that an independent Kurdistan is impossible, that barrier has been crossed and this is a huge step forward.
Many prerequisites for Kurdistan’s independence already exist, although the Kurdish leadership has wisely chosen not to pursue it right now. However, the Kurdish leadership must be clear in Washington about the Kurdish people’s desire for independ¬ence. They should also state clearly that as pragmatic leaders they have no inten¬tion of declaring independence right now, but as democratic leaders this is inevitable since this is what Kurdish people really want.
To achieve this goal, internally, the KRG must demonstrate that an independent Kurdistan will be a viable entity; this can be demonstrated through good governance and economically sound policies by the KRG. The Americans will certainly support the Kurds if they feel that they are committed to democracy and the rule of law. Kurdistan must establish a democratic government of institutions.
Externally, the KRG must guarantee that regional stability will be maintained and that an independent entity will not upset regional US allies and threaten their territorial integrity. This can be achieved through mutual security treaties and the establishment of excellent trade and diplomatic relations with regional states. Regional stability and the stability of America>s NATO ally Tur- key are major considerations in Washington when it comes to the Kurdish issue.
An independent Kurdistan in the future is likely to be achieved through some sort of Velvet Divorce between Arab Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, akin to the dissolution of the former Czechoslovakia in 1993. The US may play a role in negotiating this secession. The best way for that to happen is to have an agreement with the Iraqi government. To achieve this, the issue of the disputed territories should be resolved between Erbil and Baghdad because it is very difficult for the Kurdistan Region to achieve independence if it does not know which territory it is going to control.
Q: Why does the US appear to side with the Iraqi government in the current dispute over oil exports from Kurdistan to Turkey? And if you think the US is siding with the Iraqi government, why is it doing so despite the fact that Iraq cooperates with Iran on Syria, Maliki’s government has not implemented national reconciliation with Sunnis and so on and so forth?
A: The US supports and believes it is a good thing that more oil is been produced in Iraq including in the Kurdistan Region, as it is good for consumers around the world including the American people. This will also help keep oil prices down in international markets.
However, the United States does not support the KRG>s current oil policy, because it is not done in harmony with Baghdad. America has four major concerns with Erbil>s current oil policy. Firstly, the US wants Kurdistan’s oil to be a net-contributor not just for Kurdistan>s development but for all Iraqis.
Secondly, the United States wants Turkish access not only to 20% of the oil and gas that exists in the Kurdistan region, but to 100% of the oil and gas in the entire country. Washington would also like to see Turkey>s port city of Ceyhan become an alternative to the Strait of Hormuz in transporting Iraqi oil and gas to world markets.
Thirdly, the US believes the KRG>s unilateral oil policy would lead to the weakening of Baghdad, more violence inside Iraq, its disintegration and eventually Iraq>s break up.
Finally, the US is concerned about Baghdad>s perception of Turkey>s hostility towards Arab Iraq, knowing Ankara is a close US ally, eventually leading it to distance itself from the West.