Kirkuk and the Kurds: A Difficult Choice Ahead
Kirkuk and the Kurds: A Difficult Choice Ahead
The Anxiety Effect: How 9/11 and Its Aftermath Changed Gulf Arab States’ Relations with the U.S.
The Anxiety Effect: How 9/11 and Its Aftermath Changed Gulf Arab States’ Relations with the U.S.

Kirkuk and the Kurds: A Difficult Choice Ahead

When I first visited Kirkuk, Iraq's oil-rich city inhabited by Turkomans, Kurds, Arabs and Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, on the heels of the Gulf War in early April 1991, I witnessed the wholesale destruction of the city's Kurdish Shorja quarter. Saddam Hussein's bulldozers were punishing the Kurds for his forces' ouster from the north in a popular uprising two weeks earlier.  Kurdish peshmerga rebels had taken Kirkuk, exploiting Saddam's weakness following his defeat in Kuwait, but the Gulf war allies' failure to support them allowed the dictator to regroup.  Using his armour and helicopters, he "restored order" - killing thousands, while hundreds of thousands more streamed into Iran or were stranded at the Turkish border.

Shorja's destruction was emblematic of the horrors the regime visited on the Kurds. Some years earlier, in culmination of a decades-long campaign to Arabise the Kirkuk region, its forces had depopulated the Kurdish countryside, displacing villagers to vast resettlement camps inside the Kurdish region and razing their homes. In the 1988 Anfal campaign, the regime went further, killing all able-bodied men, women and even children from Kirkuk-area villages so as to prevent any possibility of the area's regeneration with a Kurdish identity.

Understandably, Kurdish leaders have sought to capitalise on their newfound power following the regime's 2003 ouster by pursuing the redress of past injustices. In doing so, however, they have gone beyond a mere reversal of Arabisation's various aspects (for example, the return of displaced Kurds and rehabilitation of Kirkuk neighbourhoods, such as Shorja, and the countryside) by laying claim to Kirkuk governorate as part of the Kurdish region. In other words, they are using the historic opportunity of rolling back Arab domination to sue for independence through the acquisition of Kirkuk and its oil wealth.

The realisation of the Kurds' ambition to annex Kirkuk is centred on a popular referendum about the area's status, scheduled for the end of this year, whose outcome, via a Kurds-designed process embedded in Iraq's new constitution, is predetermined. By engineering a Kurdish majority in Kirkuk over the past four years, the Kurds know they cannot lose.

As the clock ticks closer to the constitutionally mandated deadline, however, it looks increasingly unlikely that a referendum will be held this year. Not only is growing political opposition to the Kurds' ambition militating against the Iraqi government's ability to organise a referendum, but practically speaking many difficult procedural questions have yet to be addressed, let alone resolved. Should the referendum be held only in Kirkuk or also in other areas claimed by the Kurds? Which are the "disputed territories" mentioned in the constitution? What are the boundaries of each of these territories? What will constitute a constituency or voting district? Who will be eligible to vote? And who will oversee creation of the voter roll and the referendum itself? Each of these questions is controversial and will stir protracted wrangling.

If the Kurds' effort is faltering, they have only themselves to blame, as they have signally failed to gain the trust of Kirkuk's other communities. After achieving political dominance in April 2003 and especially after provincial council elections in January 2005, they monopolised political and administrative power in Kirkuk rather than sharing it, and directed reconstruction funds toward Kurdish villages and neighbourhoods, leaving others to wallow in neglect.

Moreover, unremitting rivalry between the two main Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has led both parties to heighten their rhetoric on Kirkuk. This may win them votes at home but it is preventing both from backing off from their maximum demands and pursuing compromise with the other communities.

More broadly, Kurdish leaders have failed to explain to Iraqis why Kirkuk's accession to the Kurdish region would be good for the country. Instead, they have fuelled suspicions that they are using Kirkuk as a stepping stone toward secession, banking on its oil wealth to reduce their economic dependence on both Iraq and neighbouring countries.

The Kurds face a choice. If they wish to pursue political independence, they should say so. Given their past struggles and suffering, they can make a good case that they are entitled to it, and they may enjoy a good deal of support among Iraqis and the international community. But in that case no Iraqi who is not a Kurd, nor the neighbouring states, will allow the Kurds to take Kirkuk along.

If, on the other hand, the Kurds accept a federal solution to their predicament, they will not only have to live with other Iraqis but make compromises with them, some very painful. In such a scenario, Kirkuk could only be shared, its power and administration fairly divided between its principal representatives. The Kurds would then be in their right to ask for international security guarantees so that the atrocities of the past cannot and will not be repeated.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boards a plane at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 20 February 2020. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

The Anxiety Effect: How 9/11 and Its Aftermath Changed Gulf Arab States’ Relations with the U.S.

Post-9/11 events have shaken Riyadh’s and Abu Dhabi’s faith in the durability of Washington’s support. As part of our series, The Legacy of 9/11 and the “War on Terror”, Dina Esfandiary says U.S.-Gulf ties will likely not regain the strength they had twenty years ago.

Of the nineteen hijackers on the four planes that crashed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, all but two were from the Gulf states: fifteen from Saudi Arabia and two from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The attacks and their aftermath upset a status quo of smooth political, economic and security relations between the U.S. and its Gulf Arab partners. As the U.S. turned its overly ambitious gaze toward removing Saddam Hussein and advancing George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda”, it upended finely balanced regional dynamics, increased Gulf states’ sense of insecurity and spurred the slow erosion of their confidence in Washington’s steady support. The reverberations of these Bush-era choices shape U.S.-Gulf relations to this day.

At the heart of the United States’ ties with the Gulf Arab states is its relationship with Saudi Arabia, described by scholar and former U.S. government official Jeremy Shapiro as a “security-for-oil quid pro quo” under which “the United States has served as Saudi Arabia’s last – and sometimes first – line of defence against external threats to the kingdom”. U.S. security assurances to Gulf state partners arguably date back to the 1940s, and they assumed their modern cast in President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 State of the Union address, when he stated that: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force”. Although the U.S. has never afforded the Gulf Arab states the same legally binding commitments it gives its closest treaty allies, these political assurances formed the backdrop of wide-ranging relations that embraced trade, arms sales and basing rights for U.S. forces in the region.

Perhaps the most significant inflection point in U.S.-Gulf relations that preceded the 11 September 2001 attacks was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Up to that point, Gulf Arab leaders had kept a wary eye on the U.S. profile in the region – not wanting the security partnership to create the perception that they had welcomed Western interlopers or to produce a public backlash. But in the face of Saddam Hussein’s aggression, those concerns evaporated almost overnight. Leaders welcomed the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti soil as a U.S.-led military coalition jumped in to expel Iraqi forces. From the Gulf leaders’ perspective, the 1991 war helped usher in an era of relative stability, even as their dependence on the U.S. for their security deepened while legally binding security guarantees remained out of reach.

This abrupt ramping-up of the U.S. military presence, however, brought the reaction that leaders had previously feared, particularly among religious elites – state-affiliated ulama and Islamists, including those who vocally opposed the royal family’s rule in Saudi Arabia. One of the most prominent public objectors was Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian citizen from a wealthy family, who had fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Bin Laden now turned his sights toward Western troops stationed in Muslim lands, as well as inward at those abetting what he saw as U.S. imperial designs. In 1996, in his first major speech, bin Laden explicitly decried this presence, laying the planks for the platform on which he would build a significant following and establish al-Qaeda.

The 9/11 attacks ... dramatically changed the U.S. public’s attitudes toward the Middle East and Washington’s Gulf Arab partners in particular.

The 9/11 attacks, planned and carried out by al-Qaeda, dramatically changed the U.S. public’s attitudes toward the Middle East and Washington’s Gulf Arab partners in particular. Part of the public, along with some political leaders, mainly in Congress, suspected these states of having enabled the attacks. But more consequentially the attacks created the circumstances for two policy shifts that reflected Washington’s newfound desire to reshape the region in a more ideologically familiar mould and its misplaced conviction that it could do so.

One was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which the U.S. pursued despite multiple warnings from its regional partners that removing the regime would create a vacuum that Tehran would readily exploit. Since Iran’s revolution in 1979, they had feared that the Islamic Republic, run by Shiite clergy, would incite Shiites in Arab countries to rebellion in a grab for regional hegemony. Prior to the Iraq invasion, they considered Iraq to be within their own – Sunni – sphere of influence, notwithstanding their fraught relationship with Saddam Hussein. Afterward, they saw it falling squarely within Iran’s orbit. A former U.S. official said of the Saudis at the time: “They warned the Bush administration that invading Iraq would unleash Iran. They were frustrated when their warnings were ignored”. As Tehran’s power grew, and along with it the capacity to project its influence around the region, Saudi and Emirati assessments led these states to focus almost single-mindedly on containing and rolling back an ever-growing Iranian threat.

The other attempt at reshaping the region that the 11 September attacks unleashed was the Bush administration’s freedom agenda. While Bush himself had run on a platform that suggested deep scepticism of grand idealistic projects in U.S. foreign policy, the attacks empowered a cadre within his administration that believed the U.S. should try to rework the Middle East more in its image. In late 2003, President George W. Bush unveiled what he described as “a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East”. It was a vision of bringing about change in the region through the imposition of U.S. values, including with respect to democracy and human rights. In a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush said: 

Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe – because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.

The change in U.S. rhetoric toward the region posed a problem for the Gulf states on two levels. First, the very idea of a more ideological U.S. foreign policy that aimed to spread democratic values to their neighbourhood proved, in their eyes, that the U.S. did not view them as equal partners. Rather, they saw it as revealing Washington’s perception of them as countries that needed to be told what to do. That included shifting away from autocratic rule, which Washington was now arguing had bred Islamist militancy and assisted the rise of transnational jihadists like bin Laden.

Secondly, Gulf Arab leaders feared what President Bush’s stated desire to spread democracy in the region would mean for their own survival. The change in U.S. rhetoric went against Washington’s longstanding approach to promoting political stability in the Arab world by supporting the status quo even when it involved providing cover for strongly authoritarian governments. U.S. visions of democracy could hardly be squared with the political ascendancy of dynastic monarchies that ruled with a heavy hand. Although, in reality, the Bush administration pursued the freedom agenda selectively and largely gave up after Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006, at least some Gulf officials initially believed that Bush’s foreign policy targeted them directly.

From the perspective of the Gulf Arab states, then, the Bush administration’s policy whiplash following the 9/11 attacks was a double betrayal: the U.S. had targeted their very systems of government and unleashed the power of their worst enemy, Iran. And it taught them that a U.S. partner they had thought reliable was capable of being fickle. In response, to insulate themselves from what they thought the freedom agenda might bring, they eagerly seized on the opportunities the U.S.’s new counter-terrorism effort offered. Pursuit of jihadists was in their own interest, of course, but it also allowed them to stay in Washington’s good graces.

While relations with the U.S. did not remain at the low ebb they reached in the years immediately following the 11 September attacks, the Gulf Arab states found periodic reasons to refresh the anxiety that emerged at that time. President Barack Obama’s administration certainly gave them several. Dismayed by the Iraq invasion and the Bush administration’s subsequent mismanagement of post-war stabilisation and reconstruction efforts, the Gulf Arab states cautiously welcomed Obama’s 2008 election, as they hoped the new president would put an end to the turbulence of the Bush years. But they were soon disappointed. The Obama administration signalled that it aimed to draw down the U.S. military presence in the region and widen the focus of its foreign policy to Asia. Yet the counter-terrorism partnership stayed strong.

When the 2011 Arab uprisings erupted, after initially sending mixed signals, the administration sided with the protesters, advising long-time U.S. partner President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to step down. The speed and ease with which the U.S. abandoned Mubarak, in particular, frightened and frustrated Gulf Arab leaders. The administration’s decision to pursue the Iran nuclear deal further soured relations as Gulf partners worried that the agreement would further unleash Iran in the region through the release of frozen funds and new income following the removal of international sanctions. When Yemen started to unravel in 2014-2015, Saudi Arabia argued that the Huthi insurgents who had ousted Washington’s partner, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, from Sanaa owed their success to Iran, while the UAE played up the resurgence of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in southern Yemen in the chaos of civil war. On these two matters, they had the Obama administration’s ear, and its support, but even when the U.S. backed their coalition’s armed push into Yemen they seemed hardly reassured of Washington’s strategic commitment to them.

Gulf Arab leaders then nourished some hope that President Donald Trump might prove, in their view, a more reliable partner, but were again let down. At first, they were heartened by Trump’s visit to Riyadh, his eschewing of any democracy agenda for the region, his renewed emphasis on counter-terrorism and his abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal; they also welcomed Trump’s professions of U.S. support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen, with which the Obama administration had grown impatient. Yet they saw as tepid the Trump administration’s largely rhetorical response to the 2019 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure and Gulf shipping, apparently by Iranian hands, notwithstanding its deployment of an additional 2,800 troops to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath. They also found that Trump was keen to shift the financial burden of U.S. protection to them, demanding that they pay for their own security and stop free-riding.

Gulf states ... have begun to deepen partnerships with European countries, Russia and China, to reduce their exclusive dependence on the U.S.

Twenty years after the 11 September attacks, it is clear that relations between Washington and the Gulf Arab states are not going to return to where they had previously been. While Gulf states continue to rely on the United States for security, and will for as long as they can, U.S. partners in the region have also begun to diversify the ways in which they protect their interests. They have begun to deepen partnerships with European countries, Russia and China, to reduce their exclusive dependence on the U.S. They have also begun to act more on their own initiative. For example, the UAE’s decision in August 2014 to join Egypt in conducting airstrikes in Libya without first informing the U.S. would have been inconceivable a decade earlier, when the UAE conducted all its military deployments as part of a U.S.-led coalition. The UAE’s decision to bring its longstanding security and intelligence relationship with Israel out into the open also falls within this strategic readjustment: the small Gulf state, which has a powerful military, is signalling that if it cannot count 100 per cent on its outside protector, it must pursue relative autonomy in security, a model that Israel – a close U.S. ally that knows it can ultimately trust only itself – has pioneered in the region.

The new boldness first and foremost reflects a sense by some Gulf Arab governments that they cannot outsource key regional security decisions in the aftermath of the 2011 popular uprisings, but it also traces its origins to the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks a decade earlier, which planted the seeds of gradual but consequential change. That change may well be positive if it helps fortify Washington’s resolve to avoid counterproductive interventions in the region, but that remains to be seen. For right now, what is clear is that the Gulf Arab states will increasingly hedge their bets and prepare for the day they fear may come – when the Biden administration, or one of its successors, decides to make a dramatic pivot away from a region that may long have powered the U.S. economy but also brought it a sea of troubles.

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