Is Washington against Kurdish Independence?
Last week, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis went on an Iraq visit considered unexpected by diplomatic norms. A high profile visit by a US official right at a time Iraqi forces are closest to eradicate Daesh has its own reasons and consequences, however, in no way unexpected at least for Iraq observers.
Naturally, one expects the talks held during the visit to have revolved around military issues. It is perfectly natural for the Secretary of Defense to discuss military issues with Iraqi officials. In reality, too, issues including the future of US forces in post-Daesh Iraq and the US’ desire to continue its long-term military involvement in the country under different pretexts have been discussed.
One of the many pretexts to mention, one repeatedly mooted by US officials, is to protect Iraq’s stable security and to help Iraqi forces. That is the line wherein one could better understand remarks made by President Trump and Secretary Mattis. “ISIS’ days are certainly numbered, but it is not over yet and it is not going to be over anytime soon,” Mattis told reporters in Amman, before visiting Iraq. These remarks naturally translate into the notion that US’ job in Iraq will not be over in the near future, too.
Trump said two days earlier that the US cannot “repeat the mistakes” it made in Iraq. These comments indicate US’ insistence for continued military presence in Iraq and its political and logistical requirements.
Another important issue in Mattis’ Iraq visit was the Kurdish independence referendum. He came to tell the Kurds to postpone the referendum and the potential declaration of independence from Iraq. Clearly, this is not because of Washington’s dissatisfaction with the issue in question—the problem is with its timing. Engaged in security cooperation in Iraq and Kurdistan, the Americans believe that the time is not ripe for Kurdistan’s independence due to the political, security, and geographical situation. Therefore, some analysts believe that the apparent opposition of US officials against the referendum provides no convincing reason for us to think that Washington is against the referendum or independence of the Kurds from an integrated Iraq.
If so, how shall we come to terms with the many comments that have come from White House officials and strategist in recent years on the "new Middle East project", the basis of which is to balkanize the major countries in the region?
“I am sure during my and your lifetime, we will see the independence of Kurdistan,” former US Vice President Joe Biden told Barzani just a few days after the latter declined to postpone the referendum. Of course, Biden’s plan to balkanize Iraq is no secret or point of disagreement. It is openly based on the balkanization of Iraq into three Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia countries.
Thus, Washington’s opposition is tactical, aimed to pave the ground for the prosperity of the Kurdish government from the point of view of White House decision-makers. The ground thereof may be US efforts to establish a geographical link between Iraqi and Syrian Kurds so that the Kurdish government could have space, if independence met a boycott siege by Iran and Turkey.
The only disagreement between pro-referendum Kurds and US officials seems to be the fact that Kurds want to declare independence first and then try to pave the ground for the establishment of such a government (one which has entitlements to territory, international waters, and international recognition) while the Americans believe the same path should be taken in the other way around.
The deep rift between US and Turkey over Syria can be understood from the same angle. The US is backing Syrian Kurds despite serious opposition from Ankara, as Turkish officials find US’ strategic goal to be triggering the new Middle East project in Syria and Iraq through the Kurds. Many Arab analysts believe that after the eradication of the ISIS, which at least balkanizes Iraq and Syria, the US and its regional allies pursue the same goal through political means, one of the best forms of which is referendum, as it escalates domestic and regional tension unprecedentedly, enough for the US and Israel to fish in the troubled waters.