President Trump responded to the entrance of the Iraqi forces and Iran-based militias into Kirkuk this morning by stating that US is not taking sides between Kurds and the Iraqi government and is engaged in encouraging all sides to avoid clashes and continue dialogue.
However, in the context of the current tensions, US neutrality and commitment to non-intervention is taken as betrayal by the Kurds and as tacit approval by Iraq, Iran, and even Turkey. Qassem Soleimani’s role in the fall of Kirkuk was the first test of the White House’s new policy on Iran, which includes designating IRGC as a terrorist organization and opposing Iranian expansionism in the Middle east. Nevertheless, thus far, the administration has failed to show commitment to upholding US law and going after the terrorist leader, despite an opportunity to do so in the course of this operation.
From the perspective of tribal Middle Eastern societies, no matter what President Trump’s actual intentions are, he has chosen sides by failing to stop the Iraqi forces from entering Kirkuk, raising the Iraqi flag, lowering the Kurdish flag, seizing the oil field in the area, and in every respect asserting dominion and control over the area. That is a sign of not only a political betrayal, but of a strategic choice that will have long-term repercussion for the region. Despite the lofty rhetoric about stopping Iran, the United States cannot overlook the alliance about the Abadi forces, trained and supplied by the United States, and Iran-backed Shi’a militias, that in the past, have pressured the Kurds, threatened religious minorities in the area, including Yazidis and Christians, and despite some limited cooperation with the United States on the issues of fighting ISIS (mainly out of self-interest), have otherwise acted as agents of the ayatollah-led Iranian regime. Both indecisiveness and conscious choice to allow Baghdad and Iranian agents to do as they wish with the Kurdish areas, send the same signals to all involve, and make the United States both unwelcome with the allies, and irrelevant with the adversaries in the region.
Strategic withdrawal from an active role in the region may have its place, but only if it’s done on our terms, to our advantage, and in a way that signals a well-thought out foreign policy and defense of interests, rather than weakness, inability to make decisive move, or a choice of undemocratic regimes and bad allies over dependable allies whose help will be needed many times over in the future. Indeed, however, many are not convinced that the position of the administration on this issue is sincere. For instance, Turkey’s position on the matter of Kurdish independence may have been the lodestar in this decisionmaking process. Turkey has recently come to an agreement with Iran on a variety of matters, which included increased military cooperation and the issue of Kurdistan’s independence referendum. After the fall of Kirkuk, Ankara issued its approval of the invasion.
The administration has been careful in maintaining good relations with Turkey. It had previously pressured Barzani to postpone the referendum, after both Abadi and Erdogan expressed strong opposition. President Trump, despite major policy differences, recently called Erdogan a friend, and Turkey and the US recently concluded a deal over Boeing airplanes. Turkish lobby has been strong in the US. Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, had worked for Turkish interests. In fact, shortly before being removed from his position, Flynn had reportedly blocked a military move in Syria that Turkey had opposed. Moreover, as we now know, Turkey had paid off a number of major think tanks that had advised President Trump shortly prior to Erdogan’s visit to the White House in May of this year. President Trump is likely getting very bad advise from the Secretary of State, who views the independence referendum as illegitimate, and from an assortment of sources, who are taken in by the extensive Turkish lobby in the United States.
None of it changes matters. The current calculus throws the Kurds into the arms of Russia, which has already ascended to power along with Iran in Syria, pushing the United States out of a position of significant influence altogether due to our short-sighted focus on only dealing with ISIS. Furthermore, Russia has stayed away from publicly condemning the referendum, and in fact, acted as the biggest financial backer of KRG. Although the Kurdish leadership is generally distrustful of Russia, Russia has proven itself to be a stalwart ally to Assad, and has deftly advocated for the Kurds in Turkey when it suited her interests. Putin’s backing of the Kurds in Iraq is not sentimental; rather, he is shrewdly taking advantage of the US inaction to establish Kurdistan as Russia’s sphere of influence and rise to power in the Middle East, all without having to expend significant power or resources.
As our influence diminishes and our presence becomes marginal, the US is likely to miss significant opportunities for business and educational investment in Kurdistan; infrastructure projects with potential for job growth for American workers; creation of a stable buffer state in the Middle East that would likely protect our security interests vis-a-vis Iran and Turkey, and spread elements of democracy and liberalization naturally through the people indigineous to the region rather than through conquest, occupation, or or other policies likely to be viewed as colonialist. What we are losing, however, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are gaining. Sooner or later, the imperial ambitions of these three aggressive states will come to a head in the oil-rich region; however, either one of the three belligerent actors prevails, which will not benefit the region, or the three countries come to a power-sharing agreement, in which case minorities, Israel, and the US will all lose out, or the situation deteriorates to the point of chaos, with civil war, strife, and new waves of refugees repeating the tragic events in Syria. In all cases excepting the instance where US rises to the occasion, shows moral and strategic leadership, and backs Kurdish aspiration to independence, we are looking at some very dismal scenarios that will place America dead last not only in the Middle East, but in the international arena as well.