Of all the countries that announced their position toward the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, America has probably have taken the most ambiguous stance. Officially, the U.S. opposes Kurdish independence and supports the “unity of Iraq”. Non-officially, Washington does not care about Iraqi unity.
In a session held under Chatham House rules at one of Washington’s prestigious think-tanks, a participant asked a top administration official about how the U.S. is allied with pro-Iranian militias on the Iraqi side of the Iraq-Syria border, but engages in clashes with other pro-Iranian militias on the Syrian side of the border.
The Trump administration official responded by saying that the U.S. government does not look at the Middle East as a set of nations, but rather “on a village-by-village” basis, with one defining principle, that any U.S. ally should participate in eradicating terrorism, which is believed to be America’s top strategic interest.
Yet such a policy might work only in the very short term. Once all of U.S. allies are assembled in its war on terrorism, the U.S. would have to pay its allies back by standing with them in defense of their national interests, and here lies the problem.
The U.S. has a dozen Middle Eastern allies, almost all of whom are locked up in competition in defense of their interests, especially after the Iraq war shook up the region in a way not seen since World War I.
Incoherent US policies
This means that when U.S. allies ask for payback for their participation in the war on terror, Washington will have to walk a very tightrope in an attempt to balance its act. America’s failure to come up with a coherent foreign policy, for itself and for its allies, has been evident in Syria, a country that has been blown up into tiny pieces since the outbreak of the anti-Assad revolution in 2011.
Washington’s strategy in Iraq has been evolving since the Iraq war in 2003. At first, the U.S. wanted Iraq as an ally and a beacon of democracy, with which it could set an example for neighboring countries, and provoke people to overthrow their dictators once they see Iraq’s prosperous democracy at work.
But America’s original blueprint for Iraq proved to be too rosy. Reality was very different, and Washington had to learn, the hard way, how to strike a balance between its friends and enemies, be they local Iraqis or regional powers.
Change of tack
In the middle of the bloody Iraqi civil war, many U.S. officials believed that putting Iraq back together was impossible, and that dividing it into three states -- a Shia, a Sunni, and a Kurdish state -- was the only solution. One of the biggest advocates of dividing Iraq was then-Senator Joe Biden, also chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Ironically, when he decided to run for president, Barack Obama recruited Biden as his running mate especially for the purpose of supervising foreign policy, given Biden’s long experience on the committee. When the duo of Obama and Biden were elected president and vice president, Obama put Biden in charge of Iraq. The VP’s National Security Advisor Anthony Blinken thus became the highest U.S. official handling American policy in Iraq.
Despite Biden’s support for dividing Iraq, Obama’s vision prevailed: Replacing America’s traditional allies with Iran, and restoring the pre-1979 American alliance with Iran became a top priority, even if that meant sacrificing Washington’s success in stabilizing Iraq by 2010 and handing it over to Iran.
Obama’s Iraq policy effectively meant making nice with Tehran, and hence undermining any Kurdish ambition for independence in northern Iraq. Even when Daesh took over Mosul in 2014 and started pushing toward Kirkuk and Baghdad, the U.S. abandoned its plans of arming the Iraqi Kurdish militia, under pressure from Baghdad, and ultimately from Iran. Germany repeatedly tried to ship arms to the Iraqi Kurds, but Obama thwarted this effort.
Obama turned tables for many
Obama eventually emerged as the enemy of the Kurds. Another Obama enemy was Israel. Hence, the Israelis and Iraqi Kurds believed that the end of Obama’s presidency, and the election of Trump, would be the ideal time for both of them: Iraqi Kurds could declare independence and Israel could expand its settlements in the West Bank, while at the same time seeking peace with Arab Gulf countries.
Trump is undisputedly the closest American friend of Israel in the history of the U.S. presidency. Trump became the only president to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem during his presidency.
Trump’s main interest
Trump’s interest in Israel has nothing to do with his view of Middle Eastern politics and everything to do with his perception that befriending Israel might secure the Jewish-American vote and financial support for his 2020 reelection.
Despite the closeness between Trump and Israel, Washington still had to take the interests of its other Middle Eastern allies into consideration. Of the U.S. allies, Turkey, Iraq and Qatar stood against Kurdish independence in Iraq. Of its enemies, Russia, Iran and Syria also opposed Kurdish independence. Of all the friends and enemies of the U.S., only Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) supported an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, with Saudi Arabia only nominally opposing Kurdish independence, not minding it behind closed doors.
In light of this complicated strategic alignment, and with all the U.S. allies -- except for two -- pushing against Kurdish independence, and with Trump’s favorite ally, Israel, rooting for Kurdish independence, the U.S. position toward the Kurds looked contradictory and confused, just like Trump’s foreign policy in general.
Kurdish independence not favorable for US establishment
Trump and Israel’s American friends aside, the U.S. establishment does not see any benefits coming from an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. For Washington, Iraqi Kurds effectively offered the U.S. three interests: Pumping half a billion barrels of oil daily, fighting Daesh, and helping the U.S. stabilize Iraq.
With the war on Daesh nearing its end, with the likely independence of Iraqi Kurds destabilizing Iraqi politics -- while at the same time causing a shutdown of the export of Kurdish oil, since all the Iraqi Kurdish oil exports go through Turkey -- and with all five neighboring countries announcing the closure of borders with Iraqi Kurdistan, any new Kurdish country will be landlocked and unable to export oil, or anything else for that matter.
Trump and Israel aside, when the U.S. establishment weighs an independent Kurdistan against the position of its allies, it finds that no matter how important the Kurds are to Washington, their importance cannot outweigh the strategic importance of America’s relations with Turkey, its NATO ally, and Iraq, the country where the U.S. has poured in trillions of dollars and lost thousands of lives.
The U.S. normally would not mind an independent Iraqi Kurdish state. But that does not mean that the U.S. will take an active position to support it at the expense of its other interests.
Iraqi Kurds seem to have overestimated their strategic importance in American eyes, an error commonly made by local Middle Eastern powers. Perhaps the Kurds thought that Israel and the UAE could secure them American approval.
In their collective memory, the Kurds tell the story of how Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the father of Masoud, was let down by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as Iran thwarted Kurdish independence. The great powers might have loved the Kurds and their leader, but love was not enough to outweigh the weight of the other regional powers.
Perhaps the next time Iraqi Kurds try to become independent, they should count more on securing the support of at least one of their territorial neighbors, rather than bet on superpowers and regional powers that do not share borders with them.
The game of nations is a complicated one, and the Kurds seem unaware that they still need more cards that they can play if they ever seek independence, cards that they did not seem to have by the time they held their first independence referendum. The White House might send its love to Iraqi Kurds, but love is never enough to create states.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.