Turkey, US not quite on same page on KRG
Last week’s meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump in New York led to a strong common message urging the Iraqi Kurdish leadership to turn back from its recent independence referendum. Indeed, that was probably the only point of the meeting that made it possible for both sides to issue almost identical readouts of the meeting. But as much as it may seem that Ankara and Washington are on the same page in terms of the necessity of maintaining Iraq’s unity, their reasons for objecting to the Kurdish independence vote are fundamentally different. This became crystal clear just days after Iraqi Kurds went ahead with the referendum on Sept. 25.
Firstly, the U.S. objection to the independence vote was mostly about timing. U.S. officials have always walked a fine line when trying to dissuade the Kurds, and they refrained from questioning self-determination rights for Iraqi Kurdistan, which has risen to its current status with tremendous U.S. backing since 1990s. But for Turkey any vote for an independent Kurdistan presents an existential crisis, especially at a time when the search for political reconciliation with its own Kurds is completely off the table. In fact, Ankara’s crackdown on Kurds after the June 2015 election played into the hands of both Turkish and Kurdish nationalists in the country.
Secondly, the U.S. support to the Kurds has been part of a carefully studied strategic political vision for the Middle East, while Ankara engaged with Arbil quite late in the game, establishing a more energy and trade-oriented relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Although Turkey opened its consulate in Arbil in March 2010, recognizing the KRG and its flag, the Turkish government always tried to disguise this political recognition, even though it made Turkish economic success in the KRG possible. U.S. officials uttered standard words of disappointment after the referendum, but nobody was really caught by surprise in Washington. There were intense consultations between Arbil and Washington on an almost daily basis over the summer. The Americans definitely knew this was coming but they chose not to twist the arms of the Kurds amid fears of Iran stealing the show in Iraq once again. Time after time I have heard the same sentence from different sources: “We don’t want al-Maliki coming back to power in Baghdad.” There is also the business of finishing off the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has been the convenient centerpiece of public U.S. rhetoric objecting to the referendum.
Now that the genie is out of the bottle, with 93 percent of Iraqi Kurds voting “yes” to independence, Washington seems to be preparing to play a “reconciliatory role” in inevitable future bargaining between Baghdad and Arbil. While it is quite convenient for the U.S. to have Ankara and Tehran at the forefront of anti-independence campaign, U.S. policymakers believe it is important not to antagonize Kurds, even if they needed a little bit of shaking.
“The United States’ historic relationship with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region will not change.” For me, that was the key sentence in the State Department’s first reaction to the referendum. Not long after, Pentagon officials revealed that there would be no change in the codes of conduct between the U.S. army and the Peshmerga. It has been a week of business as usual in the fight against ISIL in Iraq, according to Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon, with Arbil Airport being used in operations and the Peshmerga backing up the fight. There are even strong signs that Washington would oppose further sanctions from Ankara such as completely sealing the border or even military measures. When asked about President Erdoğan’s statements on closing the border and cutting off oil exports, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said it “certainly sounded like a threat” on the part of Erdoğan. This brief comment incited a reaction in Ankara, resulting in a written statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry implying that the U.S. position vis-à-vis the referendum has so far been ambiguous. Indeed it has been. The U.S. is deliberately taking that road of ambiguity in order to keep an upper hand in the tough negotiations ahead for the future of Iraq. Perhaps Ankara should try to adopt a little bit of that ambiguity too, rather than committing itself to an impossible mission of eradicating Kurdish aspirations from the face of the earth.