- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2018

President Trump caused a stir across the Middle East last week with his lavish praise for the Kurds’ role in defeating Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but just over a year after Iraqi Kurdistan’s ill-fated independence referendum, the Kurds remain even further from statehood in Iraq while the situation for their ethnic counterparts across the region continues to falter.

At a press conference during his week of diplomacy at the U.N. General Assembly last week, Mr. Trump praised Iraq’s Kurds for the prominent role they played in ousting the Islamic State from the country’s north. He pledged Washington’s support for Iraqi Kurdistan as Baghdad cobbles together a unity government.

“We do get along great with the Kurds. We’re trying to help them a lot. Don’t forget, that’s their territory. We have to help them,” Mr. Trump said in response to a question from a Kurdish reporter. “I want to help them.”

But the president’s gratitude is running up against the realities of the Middle East, where the Kurds form a significant minority in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey but lack the clout and international backing to carve out a state of their own — despite their outsized contribution to the U.S.-led war on terror groups in the region.

Officials from the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State said Tuesday that top commanders are in regular contact with their government counterparts in Iraqi Kurdistan and military partners in the Kurdish militia known as the peshmerga.

“We’re in contact with them almost daily … and told them that we’re here to support [them], and that’s what we plan on doing,” Col. Sean Ryan, coalition spokesman, told reporters at the Pentagon in a briefing from Baghdad.

U.S. and allied commanders battling Islamic State have repeatedly included their Kurdish counterparts in large-scale operations designed to prevent the terrorist group from re-emerging in northern Iraq, Col. Ryan said. U.S. military advisers are also looking to strengthen ties between the peshmerga and Iraqi Security Forces and working to create a joint command center to integrate and streamline counterterrorism and security operations by both forces, he said.

But the Sept. 25, 2017, Kurdish referendum in support of greater autonomy appears to have backfired by failing to get support from Baghdad and resulting in a leadership shake-up among the Kurds. Support for independence was overwhelming — 93 percent — which only seems to galvanize other forces in Iraq and the region to resist the independence demand.

Forming a government

The State Department and Pentagon have been focused in recent months far more on the political maneuvering over the formation of a new Iraqi government, with Kurdish priorities largely sidelined. The wrangling after May’s national elections appears to have ended this week with the formation of a ruling coalition, a compromise prime minister and the naming of longtime moderate Kurdish politician Barham Salih to the largely ceremonial post of president — traditionally reserved for a Kurd in Iraqi political practice.

“With the government still not formed, things are just taking time right now [in Iraqi Kurdistan] because that’s the No. 1 priority,” Col. Ryan said as a coalition deal was coming together this week.

But Kurds complain that Trump administration promises of political and especially military support to Iraqi Kurdistan have fallen flat in the year after Irbil’s fateful decision to press for independence. The effort is unlikely to gain further momentum despite Mr. Trump’s rhetoric last week.

“Most people who have worked on U.S. foreign policy would argue that a strong American relationship with the KRG should be an essential pillar of U.S. strategy toward Iraq and the broader Middle East,” said John Hannah, a specialist in Middle East affairs who served as a security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

“I think that the narrow focus on defeating ISIS, as well as a lack of bandwidth, limited the [Trump] administration’s ability to think strategically about Iraq’s future in ways that came back to bite us,” particularly in the case of Iraq’s Kurds, said Mr. Hannah, now a senior counselor at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

As a result, “the dream of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan has been put on hold indefinitely,” he said.

Dashed Hopes

It’s a far cry from the scene just a year ago, when the streets of Irbil were filled with Iraqi Kurds reveling in the historic independence referendum. Many saw the vote as the precursor to an eventual autonomous Kurdish state.

But those hopes were quickly dashed by a swift and heavy-handed response from then-Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a close ally of Washington who deployed government forces to secure control over key areas within Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi government forces and Shiite paramilitary units trained and equipped by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps rapidly recaptured critical territories in northern Iraq’s Kirkuk and Sinjar governorates in the weeks after the referendum.

“The referendum was not worth doing because we lost Kirkuk,” Kayfi Adil, an Irbil taxi driver, told the Agence France-Presse news agency last month. “I believe it was not a good idea to hold the referendum because we did not benefit from it.”

In the end, KRG President Masoud Barzani was forced to abandon the push for independence and Kurdish leaders in Irbil found themselves fighting for political relevance among Baghdad’s Shiite and Sunni power brokers.

“This has been the Kurdish Regional Government’s annus horribilis,” Mr. Hannah said, adding that Iraqi Kurdish leaders badly miscalculated U.S. support for their cause.

“In the run-up to the referendum, military cooperation with the peshmerga obscured the fact that U.S. policy remained adamantly opposed to Kurdish independence,” he said, adding that “signals got badly crossed” between Washington and Irbil on U.S. support for independence.

“The KRG interpreted a U.S. red light [on independence] as at worst a flashing yellow. By the time the Trump administration made its position clear, it was too late to turn the referendum off,” he said.

In the year since the referendum, momentum has also turned against indigenous Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Turkish forces continue operations in northern Syria against local Kurds affiliated with Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG — the armed faction of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization.

American military commanders have seemingly acquiesced to Turkey’s offensive against Syrian Kurdish groups, some of which played an integral role in the Islamic State fight, by agreeing to begin joint operations with Ankara in the Syrian city of Manbij. Defense Secretary James Mattis announced this week that U.S. and Turkish forces had begun required training that would pave the way for bilateral operations. U.S. and Turkish forces have been carrying out coordinated but independent missions in Syria since June.

Despite the seemingly dire situation for ethnic Kurds in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, those living in Iraqi Kurdistan may still claim their seat at the table within the country’s government, Mr. Hannah said.

“I do not think all is lost for them,” he said.

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