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The US and Iraqi Kurds: Good will hunting?

Iraqi Kurds seethe as US tells them to put aside independence dreams - for now.

Last updated: 25 Jun 2014 10:40
Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens is the Deputy Director of the Royal United Services Institute, (RUSI) Qatar.
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The relationship between Washington and Erbil has become strained in recent times, writes Stephens [AP]

US Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to Iraq comes at a crucial moment, with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its grouping of allies sweeping through swathes of the country picking up weapons, money and support as they move south. Iraq is at a perilous juncture.

The message from the United States has been firm; the spread of ISIL has been described as "unacceptable". While the removal of ISIL remains an immediate goal of the US, there are clearly other problems to do with political integration that must be addressed as well. Seeking a unified position against ISIL, Kerry also travelled to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, to ensure that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) buys into an inclusive military and political solution.

The US position is complicated; under the US-Iraqi strategic framework agreement, the US is committed to seeing the Iraqi state remaining unified and intact. In the words of Kerry on June 24 to the BBC, "a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq". But this is of course antithetical to the goals of the KRG, for whom independence and nationhood is the ultimate dream.

Strained relationship

The relationship between Washington and Erbil has become strained in recent times. The Kurds see the US as standing in the way of their aspirations for greater autonomy and self-rule, and acting as an insensitive ally, particularly with regards to the terrible state of relations between Erbil and Baghdad over Kurdish oil exports in which the US has been viewed as firmly on the side of the Iraqi state.

The relationship between Washington and Erbil has become strained in recent times. The Kurds see the US as standing in the way of their aspirations for greater autonomy and self rule, and acting as an insensitive ally, particularly with regard to the terrible state of relations between Erbil and Baghdad over Kurdish oil exports in which the US has been viewed as firmly on the side of the Iraqi state.

The reluctance of the US to remove the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) from its list of "tier III terrorist groups", both legitimately elected parties in the Iraq, has led to angry protests from KRG President Massoud Barzani who reportedly cancelled a trip to Washington in April on account of US inaction on the matter. The US has promised to act to rectify this particular diplomatic faux pas, albeit 11 years late.

The KRG views its relationship with Washington as a cornerstone of their foreign policy; the territory under Erbil's control is for most part pro-US, and yet in the past year the feeling among Kurds is for all the goodwill they show, they get very little from Washington in return.

Against this backdrop, the US is trying to convince the Kurds that their best interests lie with a shattered polity 350km to the south, a hard sell if ever there was one. This requires significant reassurances from the Americans that may go beyond what Kerry is able to offer.

The Kurds possess a capable military force in the Peshmerga fighters, but they need a direct guarantee from the US that it will be there for them should the KRG's security be existentially threatened - by either ISIL or in the future, a resurgent and angry Baghdad looking to move against the Kurds over the issue of security control in Kirkuk and its plentiful hydrocarbon resources.

Contrary to many reports that seem to imply that Kurdistan is the "winner" of the June uprising, the KRG is still in an extremely insecure position. Kurdistan commentator Cale Salih notes that "the KRG shares a 1,000km border with insurgents - only 50km are left shared with the Iraqi army". This is hardly an enviable position to be in. Indeed, Peshmerga forces are engaged in daily battles with ISIL, and have found them a tough, well-drilled and well-equipped opponent that has cemented its presence across much of northwestern Iraq.

Additionally, the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians into the Kurdistan Region poses another huge challenge. The KRG does not possess the resources to cope with such a rapid population increase. Lines at petrol stations across the region stretch for miles, and Erbil is full of homeless Iraqis desperately searching for food and shelter. The KRG is not winning anything right now.

No military solution

While both Kerry and the KRG have agreed there is no military solution to Iraq's problems, the KRG faces a severe threat and will need security guarantees before even considering some form of political agreement with Baghdad. While Kerry was clear about expressing the US goal to destroy ISIL, it needs to do more than just pay lip service to the problem and be prepared to meaningfully address Kurdish security concerns.

Call for Iraq's Sunni and Shia to unite

Kerry alluded to "words being cheap", a sign that US assistance will be forthcoming. But given that US assistance is unlikely to be the game changer for Erbil or bring it any real benefit in the long run vis-a-vis Baghdad. The potential for Iran and other regional actors to delve into Kurdistan's political and security questions is very real.

At some point, the US will have to come to terms with the fact that its policy on Iraq, hamstrung by the need to keep the country unified and functioning, is ultimately going to drive the Kurds away. For now of course, the threat of ISIL trumps all other concerns. But the real debate is about the future of Iraq itself and how the country might look after the violence of recent weeks subsides.

The Kurds will surely look to capitalise on a weakened Baghdad to advance their own goal of building further distance between themselves and the state. If the US stands in the way of this process, it might just find that it loses the KRG for good, and rather than holding Iraq the country together, precipitates its collapse.

Michael Stephens is the Deputy Director of the Royal United Services Institute, (RUSI) Qatar.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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