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US foreign policy vis-à-vis the Kurdish Independence Referendum

By Marianna Charountaki
July 10, 2016

The exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, following the Referendum of 23 June 2016, paves the way for a new era of collective individualism – a return to the international political setting ante. This portends in turn a broader reconsideration of world order on a different basis, toward the empowerment of nuclear units (national and subnational), the decentralization of power, and the gradual departure from a constructed supranational authority. The shift of the center of gravity from the international to the national (if not local); the relocation of conflicts from the international arena into a more limited geographical space, with greater repercussions for international interests, as the growth of asymmetric threats have penetrated technologically advanced international security systems, have now raised new dilemmas. Likewise and in respect of the US Middle Eastern foreign policy, questions are also raised as to what kind of mode of governance does the US want in the Middle East, and in particular Iraq.


Developments in Iraq have demonstrated the US foreign policy’s ability to overcome difficulties as far as its ‘balance of power’ objective is concerned; Washington has developed a parallel Kurdish policy, given the gradual decentralization of power in Iraq and Baghdad’s inability to breach the gap between mainly its Sunni and Shi’a political forces. This reality affected by Sunni-Shi’a regional rivalry is not directly related to the Kurds but instead to a weak central Government exposed to regional interference, which the US administration is now striving to keep together. Today, the Kurds of Iraq, despite internal disputes and differences appear united toward the common enemy, the Islamic State (IS), who has consistently fought the Kurdish forces for the past years.  


The confrontation of IS (داعش, IS, June 2014), as a point of mutual convergence between the US and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), has exacerbated the already tense Sunni-Shi’a competition, and seems to have confirmed the US foreign policy’s perception of the Kurds of Iraq as a stabilizing factor and a peaceful force in the Middle East i.e., as a key player focused on regional security rather than disorder. Indeed this surprising event with its widespread repercussions has, once again, granted the Kurds of Iraq the opportunity to acquire a role as an international ally in the US Coalition’s counter-terrorism strategy.


In the US President’s direct address on the role of the peshmerga forces and the recognition of their valuable contribution to the US anti-terror fight, Barack Obama’s 2014 clear statement that the US has economic and political interests in the Kurdistan Region [1], coupled with Congressional economic and military aid, confirmed the steady, long-term and strategic interactive relation between Washington and Erbil.


The US administration’s apparent U-turn in its approach to Middle Eastern politics since Saddam Hussein’s overthrow is telling. Recent interventions have led to further destabilization of the region, hence the current reluctance to sustain long-term and costly military enterprises.  The US has no desire – as the US Presidency reiterates – to see prolonged all-out civil wars inside Iraq. Consequently, it appears that the US might soon revert to traditional foreign policy practices as the only way out, i.e., the reapplication of the US ‘pillars’ policy of building strong alliances with regional powers, as opposed to the US direct all-out interference and military presence in the region thus far.


In this context, the Kurdish issue and Iraq in particular, cannot but constitute a priority for the US Middle Eastern foreign policy, as determinants - along with Syria - of regional stability. President Obama’s declaration that ‘the Kurdish region is functioning in the way we would like to see’ [2] is a case in point along with his commitment ‘…as part of a comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat the IS, authorized the deployment of US Armed Forces to Iraq. These US forces are conducting coordination with Iraqi forces and providing training, communications support, intelligence support, and other support to select elements of the Iraqi security forces, including Kurdish peshmerga forces’ [3].


Both the overthrow of Saddam’s regime, a development facilitated by the US Iraqi foreign policy, and more importantly the war against the IS, has drawn US attention to the Kurds as leverage in the new reordering of the Middle Eastern political scene, based on their increasing influence as regional actors. Indeed the US Iraqi foreign policy for ‘regime change’ per se created a new political environment that led to a one-way political solution for Iraq and this was none other than Iraq’s restructuring on a new basis that signalled the state’s partition into two regions with a federal mode of governance. Iraq’s restructuring, even within the same boundaries, has thus been a US standing policy since 2003. Hence, the debate triggered by the Kurdish Resion (KR)’s Presidential commitment to an upcoming Referendum for Independence, according to which the citizenship will decide its own future through its preferred mode of governance, does not appear to clash with Iraq’s territorial integrity given (a) the preservation of the existing boundaries, (b) Iraq’s stability being the international and regional Iraqi foreign policy’s priority, (c) Baghdad’s political deadlocks dragging the rest of Iraq into an even more dangerous abyss of insecurity, and (d) the impediments posed by the central Government to the KR’s assistance from a variety of international powers. Then a confederal mode of governance (as a three-way division of the state) could possibly bring more peace, given a genuine, inclusive sharing of power.


This becomes even more realistic if one considers ‘the 2007 non-binding US Senate resolution passed in a vote of 75 to 23, which proposes to separate Iraq into Kurdish, Shi’ite and Sunni entities, with a federal government in Baghdad in charge of border security and oil revenues’ [4]. This demonstrated the US foreign policy’s predisposition to the establishment of decentralized centres of power on the grounds of an imperative co-existence as probably the best way of exerting influence and a solution to Iraq’s prolonged instability. More importantly, today, Baghdad’s political instability in tandem with the threat of IS to US interests, has raised the importance of the Kurds in Iraq even further, as well as shaping the role they are expected to play beyond the current transitional era.


Successive political and military meetings between US officials and the Kurdish leadership, opening of new US air bases in and around Erbil, US direct military assistance, albeit limited, to the peshmerga (House Armed Services Committee, FY2016) [5], all indicate Kurdish importance in Iraq not only as a political but also military non-state actor, that interacts with the US foreign policy through a dynamic and multi-dimensional foreign policy practice. The upgrade of the Kurdish status and its economic presence and achievements, as a considerable foreign policy asset, contributes positively as a counterweight to the ongoing regional instability, and thus US foreign policy is beginning to consider the Kurds of Iraq a significant force, a policy further heightened by the US apparent sensitivity to the Kurdish cause that seems to be gradually reaching a resolution. The US involvement in the KR is also growing because of the convergence of interests with the KR in a broader range of matters such as sustainable development, economic prosperity, support for constitutional rights and the democratization process. Yet, the US’s loyalty to its ‘balance of power’ policy, driven by its national interests, will ultimately determine the time and context within which further developments will follow.

The Kurdish leadership’s continuous meetings with regional, but more importantly, international players, including the US and Russia, the more recent US active participation in the issue of the Kurdish Presidency (2015) and its growing interest in the KR’s affairs, explicitly reveal the US foreign policy’s emphasis on prioritizing the Kurds in view of their twin role as a strategic force between Iran and Turkey, and frontline fighter in the war against IS. Thus such parameters appear to constitute guarantees for President Barzani’s announced referendum scheduled before the end of the year.



Notes on Contributor:

Dr. Marianna Charountaki is a Sessional Lecturer at Reading University (UK). Her research interests range from international relations and foreign policy analysis to the international relations of the broader Middle East. She is the author of the book The Kurds and US Foreign Policy: International Relations in the Middle East since 1945, (Routledge, 2010) as well as articles like ‘Turkish Foreign Policy and the Kurdistan Regional Government’, Perceptions: Journal of International Affairs, Vol.17, No 4 (Center for Strategic Research: Winter 2012), 185-208; ‘U.S. foreign policy in theory and practice: from Soviet-era containment to the era of the Arab Uprisings(s)’, Journal of American Foreign Policy Interests: the Journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, Vol.36, Issue 4, (Routledge, 2014), 255-267, and ‘Kurdish policies in Syria under the Arab Uprisings: A revisiting of IR in the New Middle Eastern Order’, Third World Quarterly, Vol.36, Issue 2, 337-356, (Taylor& Francis, 27 March 2015).

Dr. Charountak is a guest contributor and is not affiliated with the KPRC.




[1] TV Interview cited in ‘Iraq, Refugees and Oil’, BBC Newsnight, (12/08/2014).

[2] Thomas L. Friedman, Interview: ‘President Obama Talks to Thomas L. Friedman About Iraq, Putin and Israel’, The New York Times, in (last accessed, June, 2016).

[3] Barack Obama, The White House, ‘Letter FromThe President –War Powers Resolution’, (11 December, 2015), (last accessed June, 2016).

[4] Shailagh Murray, ‘Senate Endorses Plan to Divide Iraq’, The Washington Post, (26 September, 2007), in (last accessed, June, 2016). Also in ‘US Senate approves Biden’s plan’, Yeni Şafak (27 September 2007).


[5] The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, 2016) section 1223, authorizes $715 million for the Iraq train-and-equip mission, but requires that not less than 25 percent of such funds be expended for direct assistance to the Kurdish peshmerga. The bill carves out at least 25% of that aid for the peshmerga, the Sunni tribal militias and a yet-to-be-established Iraqi Sunni National Guard. If progress on certain conditions isn’t apparent within three months of the bill’s passage — political inclusiveness, authorization the National Guard, ending support for Shiite militias — the remaining 75% of the aid would be withheld from Baghdad and at least 60% of it would go straight to the Kurds and Sunnis in Patrick Goodenough, ‘House Defense Bill Sends 25% of Iraq Funding to Kurdish, Sunni Fighters’,, (1 May, 2015) in (last accessed June, 2016).

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