Iraq’s Kurdish Problem Leaves the US No Way Out
The latest developments in Iraq have put the US in another dilemma. It wants out of that country, but can’t actually leave because everything which is going on there is the product its own US foreign policy. It is affected by everything that goes on there, it can’t just walk away.
The various conflicting forces there can rightly say, like Eichmann: that they are “only obeying orders”, and making good on the promises made to them. If anyone doesn’t like the direction their country, or region of it, is taking — they will simply blame the US for their plight. They will not blame other Iraqis, as none of the promises made were Iraq’s idea. All this will create another anti-US coalition the White House can ill afford to deal with, with things going so badly in Syria right now.
Haider al-Abadi’s Iraqi government is supposed to be slowly removing influence of the US which installed it after Saddam’s overthrow. However he has to contend with rampant corruption which was largely introduced by the US as a ploy to increase its influence on the country. For as long as he fails to achieve that, he will himself be seen as a US puppet who doesn’t want to re-establish Iraqi sovereignty, regardless of his track record.
Manifestations of this corruption include the so-called “ghost soldier” troops al-Abadi has kicked out. These were employed in the Iraqi Army without having any duties, principally as a means of topping up their senior officers’ salaries. This institutionalised corruption in the army to make it still beholden to the US, and left it the only means of earning a decent living. They also include the privatisation of Saddam-era public services, which the US insisted on prior to a new government being formed, only to exploit the contract process for its own ends.
Al-Abadi is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, due to forces beyond his control. But the same can be said of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil. This was in effect another US creation, as the de facto autonomy of the region was enshrined in the 2005 Iraqi constitution at US insistence.
Kurdistan remains the only autonomous region in Iraq, which shows how popular this idea really is. But though it is in continual conflict with the Iraqi government, this can also be interpreted as the US using it to influence Baghdad, even though the Kurds would see the Baghdad government as the US creation, not their own region.
The inhabitants of the Kurdistan Region don’t know who to trust. They voted for independence from Iraq in a referendum of 25th September, as you would expect politically. At the same time they are protesting about the regional government not paying their salaries. Al-Abadi, who said the referendum was invalid, is hoping to ride in to the rescue and thus drive a wedge between the Kurdish population and their politicians. But could he unite other Iraqis around an alliance with the Kurds, or vice versa?
So both Baghdad and Erbil can justly claim that the other side are US stooges. Both also have good political reasons for continuing to do so, as neither can stomach a solution to their dispute which seems to favour the other, rightly or wrongly. The people who dislike either the regional or national government, or both, are persuaded that politicians of all stripes are US stooges, but won’t agree on what the best alternative is.
We are left with a situation where fourteen years after the US invasion, the only thing uniting Iraq’s politicians and people is dislike of US influence in the country. The only solution is to develop a sovereignty model which all sides can tolerate. But what has to happen before the US leaves? Can it make all sides an offer they can’t refuse before another power steps in and takes that option off the table?
More spots than leopards
It is easy to see why the US has such an interest in Iraq. It was using Daesh to create Kurdistan, and legitimising this by having an existing Kurdistan Regional Government in place. It would have been one short step to create the Greater Kurdistan the Kurds have long demanded, despite the objections of Turkey, Iran and Syria, who would have to have given up territory to create it.
This is why influential US publications suddenly discovered this issue when the referendum was held. The US is still under the impression that US opinion is international opinion. If the US says something often enough, it expects most of the world to agree and for the thing to happen, as it did in South Sudan.
Furthermore, even if the US is ultimately defeated in Syria, as now seems likely, things cannot go back to how they were. The only way any “reconstruction” will work is to create some sort of “moderate confederacy” in the Middle East, not return to previous rulers and boundaries.
Assad may well see this question differently, but will not have the means to resist a solution which all sides, including the defeated US, find acceptable. His best option, even in victory, would be to become a leading figure in creating a “new Middle East”, in which the existence of terrorism is recognised but individual countries are no longer regarded as terror states but “reformers”, who are willing to put the past behind them. We might recall how the Communist nomenklatura of Hungary were able to repackage themselves after 1989, whilst remaining in control using the same methods.
This new Middle East confederacy may well include both a new Iraq and some form of Kurdish state similar to the Palestinian Authority. Having been subject of a US intervention for the benefit of its people, Iraq has no future unless it can follow through with the promises made then, which may well be the price for being allowed even limited sovereignty.
The Iraqi government must be seen to be independent, but nevertheless happen to be in line with Western opinion. If all its neighbours are of that same opinion, it will be easy for Baghdad to curry favour with both domestic and international audiences by doing the obvious thing.
The Kurdish question is more complicated however. Neither Baghdad nor Erbil will agree to give up any territory or rights. So each has to manoeuvre the other into a position where both domestic and international populations see it as the bigger US stooge, whilst actually being the bigger US stooge itself.
This will take a lot of political effort, which one side or the other may no longer think is worth it. At that point that side will seek protection from another power, which may or may not be part of the new “moderate confederacy” but will be seen as less of an undesirable influence than the US.
Then the fun will really begin, with the usual allegations about “interference” being made by those who interfered first. But this is the most probable resolution of this complicated situation, and sets the stage for the usual US versus Arab World clash which has been a feature of many countries.
The Kurds can’t rely on Turkey, Iran or Syria to help them, as these countries don’t want Greater Kurdistan taking chunks of their own territory. That is exactly why Baghdad can rely on these countries. So it is the Kurdish Regional Government which is more likely to either throw itself squarely into the US camp, hoping this will swiftly achieve Greater Kurdistan, or push Baghdad into the US camp by finding another sponsor itself, who will have their own agenda.
This sponsor could be Saudi Arabia, which like all other prospective parters has an interest in how the oil business pans out in the area. Unlike the Americans, the Saudis don’t want Kurdish oil, but they want to protect their own supplies.
If the Saudis could control who bought Kurdish oil they would be happy to intervene in support of one side, as they have in Yemen and elsewhere. Nor would they be threatened by the creation of Greater Kurdistan, as it would not include any Saudi territory whilst affecting that of regional rivals.
One of the levers the US is using in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan is the distribution of oil revenues. How exactly this should be done has never been agreed, as the same words mean different things in different circumstances.
If there is a government level agreement between the US and Iraq that will say one thing: Daesh has been used to control both the official pipelines and smuggling routes, creating on-book and off-book accounting for the same sums. But for individual oil companies, through whom the US works, “the government” may not be the Baghdad one. Similarly there are middlemen to pay off, and there are many.
All this creates uncertainty which gives the US government, which ultimately decides how these revenues are paid, greater control. Even if there are no US troops in Iraq, this financial manipulation is doing the same job.
The US offers uncertainty and a potential cure for it, whilst the Arab world offers broader alliances involving trade, weapons and political support as well as financial threat. Theoretically the US offers these things too, but as aspects of manipulation rather than development initiatives. You only have to look at the work of USAID to see this.
Saudi Arabia is suffering both financially and politically from its intervention in Yemen, but remains there because it is working with the US to deliver what the US won’t do publicly. Direct sponsorship of Kurdistan would be a logical next step, both diplomatically and for the survival of the Saudi regime, under these circumstances.
The US may say it objects, but the Saudis would be doing it a favour by helping it resolve its Iraqi and Kurdistan problems by creating an enemy which can only be won over by establishing this “moderate confederacy” in which Kurdistan is a recognised partner. Regional countries could still pick sides, but ultimately be playing the same game.
Pitting Erbil against Baghdad would bring an acceptable resolution of the conflict closer, not make it more unlikely. It will ultimately create the larger entity which can take over the US role, that of generating all the issues and promises the sides are currently fighting about.
Us and our big mouth
In Iraq the US is in the position of the elderly relative who promises to be with each member of their family at Christmas. It isn’t physically possible for him to see them all, but he says he will anyway, just to make them feel better.
All the relatives know he has made the same promise to each one of them, but they still expect that he will honour his promise to them and not the other relatives. When he doesn’t, they say he is a bad man who only cares about the one he sees, and the one he sees is bad for sucking up to the bad man. So he goes to one of the complainers for New Year, and the cycle repeats itself, until no one wants him to come at all. But all still want to be the one he promises he will visit.
The US promised reconstruction for Iraq, but that did not include Kurdish independence. It promised help to the Kurds, who had fought the hardest in support of the US to remove Saddam, but that did not mean keeping them in Iraq. The ordinary citizens on both sides thought the US was talking to them, not their governments, and feel let down by everyone.
But still all sides conduct policy on the basis of what the US promised them, thinking that is their right. If they didn’t, all would be equally hostile to the US and this would threaten US interests in the country and the whole region.
So even then the US couldn’t get out, as it would have to defend those interests. Only by trying to fulfil all promises at once, in a form close enough to expectations to be tolerable, can it finally extricate itself from the mess it has made in Iraq.
Only by granting all sides what they ultimately want, their own sovereignty, will the 2003 US invasion finally end. The only guarantee of that is to repackage a group of regional countries as moderate and progressive members of the international community, whose shared values are greater than their differences. However distant that vision may seem at present, it is the only option available. We now have to wait and see whether the US has enough courage to try and achieve this, or leave it for another power to do the same.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.