US, UK and UN propose ‘alternative’ plan to stop Kurdish referendum

September 17, 2017
Pushing back. The US Special Envoy for the Fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) Brett McGurk (L) meets with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani in Erbil, on September 11. (Kurdistan Regional Government)

Washington- The United Kingdom and the United Nations are working with the United States to prevent the up­coming Kurdish inde­pendence referendum in northern Iraq from taking place on schedule.

In a last-minute effort, senior of­ficials from the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations presented an “alternative” plan to Masoud Barzani, the presi­dent of the Kurdish Regional Gov­ernment (KRG) in Iraq, during a meeting in Dohuk on September 14. News reports said the plan included a delay of the referendum, sched­uled for September 25.

“We believe that there is a very good alternative path now on the table,” Brett McGurk, the US special envoy for the fight against the Is­lamic State (ISIS), said after meeting Barzani.

The current referendum plan had “no international legitimacy” and was “ill timed and ill advised,” McGurk added, according to the US State Department. He did not give details of his new proposal but said it offered “a path focused on a sustained process of negotiation, dialogue” about issues confronting northern Iraq and the government in Baghdad. The proposal was pre­sented by McGurk, the UK ambas­sador to Iraq, Frank Baker and the UN special representative in Iraq, Jan Kubis.

Barzani said he would confer with other Kurdish leaders, but Iraq’s Kurdish region’s parliament later approved September 25 as the date for the referendum, prompting re­newed calls by the United States to postpone the vote.

“The United States has repeat­edly emphasized to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government that the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS and sta­bilise the liberated areas,” US Presi­dent Donald Trump’s White House said in a statement. “Holding the referendum in disputed areas is par­ticularly provocative and destabilis­ing,” it warned.

The KRG says a yes vote on Sep­tember 25, the expected outcome, would mark the start of negotiations with the central Iraqi government in Baghdad about an orderly separa­tion to lay the groundwork for the creation of a Kurdish state. Baghdad says the vote is illegal. Turkey, Iran and Syria also oppose the referen­dum.

Washington argues that the refer­endum and the upheaval it is likely to cause between the KRG in Erbil and the central administration in Baghdad will affect the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Both the KRG’s troops, the peshmerga, and the Iraqi military are important US allies in the effort to push back and ulti­mately destroy ISIS. “Our point right now is to stay focused like a laser beam on the defeat of ISIS and to let nothing distract us,” US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said during a visit to Erbil last month.

The US is also concerned about plans to hold the referendum not just in Kurdish areas but in regions that are disputed between the KRG and the central Iraqi government as well. “Having a referendum on such a fast timeline, particularly in disputed areas, would be, we think, significantly destabilising,” McGurk said in July.

Beyond the immediate goal of concentrating on the fight against ISIS, analysts also point to wider considerations. Keeping Iraq togeth­er is on the list of US priorities, said David Mack, a former US ambassa­dor in the Middle East region and high-ranking State Department offi­cial who now works for the Middle East Institute in Washington. Many members of the national security community supported the idea that the “stability of Iraq is important for US national interests in the region,” Mack said.

Trump’s determination to end what he calls the era of nation build­ing by the US in faraway places is another factor that adds to Washing­ton’s scepticism towards the Kurd­ish independence.“When Trump says there won’t be any nation building, that includes the Kurdish nation, too,” Mack said.

In a statement issued before the September 14 meeting in Dohuk, the KRG said the US wanted the Kurds to delay the referendum without promising it could go ahead later. “US officials have asked the KRG to postpone the date, while offering no guarantees regarding a future suita­ble time” and without pledging sup­port for the result of a delayed ref­erendum, the KRG representation in the United States said in response to a question by The Arab Weekly. The KRG office did not reply to a request for a response to the Dohuk meeting.

US allies in the region are split over the KRG vote. NATO ally Turkey, which has a sizeable Kurdish minor­ity of its own, says the Kurdish inde­pendence move threatens regional stability. Ankara is also concerned about the fate of northern Iraq’s Turkmen, an ethnic group with ties to Turkey. But Israel, another crucial US partner in the Middle East, says it supports the Iraqi Kurds’ right of self-determination. Israel views the Kurds as potential partners against foes in the region.

Mack argued that Washington should increase the pressure on the KRG over the referendum. The US should make it clear to the Iraqi Kurds that they would not be able to rely on the US to help them with economic or political problems after the vote, he said. The KRG economy has been hit by a drop in oil prices, the threat posed by ISIS and by dis­putes between Iraqi Kurdistan and the central government in Baghdad.

“They kind of look to the US to rescue them economically and to give them a security and defence umbrella without a formal agree­ment,” said Mack. “We should tell them: ‘We will not be there for you.’ That could make the Kurdish leaders think again.”