US For­eign Pol­icy To­wards Kur­dis­tan

The Kurdish Globe - - FRONT PAGE - In­ter­view by Salih Wal­ad­bagi

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.

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