In the wake of the crisis between Baghdad and Erbil caused by the Kurdish independence referendum on Monday, the United States is striving to balance its relations with both sides and prevent any potential outbreak of violence. How long they can feasibly do so, however, has yet to be seen.
“We're friends with the Kurds; we are friends with the central government of Iraq,” is how Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, recently summed up the US position.
While the US is displeased the Kurds went ahead with the referendum now, weakly arguing it would take away the focus from the fight against Islamic State (ISIS), it has nevertheless reiterated its continued friendship with the Kurds. It has also affirmed that Baghdad's flight ban, along with its other actions which Kurdish officials have accurately described as “collective punishment”, is not constructive.
Nevertheless the US is still firmly adhering to its One Iraq policy with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson affirming that, “The vote and the results lack legitimacy” and that Washington continues “to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.”
Masrour Barzani, the Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, told the Washington Post that he is “concerned about US passivity in the face of military threats against Kurdistan.”
Tillerson, however, cautioned the Iraqi government and its neighbours against the use of force.
Given the US's interest in de-escalation and conciliation between both sides it's unlikely to do nothing were Iraq to attack Kurdistan.
Any confrontation or violence between Baghdad and Erbil, likely in Kirkuk, would doubtlessly be initiated by the former. Washington's opposition to violence is therefore, in reality, opposition to an Iraqi attack on Kurdistan and its call for continued dialogue is exactly what Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has, before the referendum and since the threats issued immediately after it, been calling for.
Furthermore Baghdad-Washington ties would become incredibly strained were Iraq to attack the Kurds. If Hashd al-Shaabi groups carry out an attack, as they've threatened to do, and Baghdad fails to prevent them then the US will likely urge the Iraqi government to publicly reject the actions of those attacking forces before militarily helping the Peshmerga repel them.
Were the Iraqi Army itself to attack and kill Peshmerga troops while marching into Kirkuk to seize the oilfields, as parliament recently called on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to do, Washington is unlikely to continue resupplying Iraq's fleet of M1 Abrams main battle tanks and its F-16 jet fighter-bombers with spare parts. While this wouldn't completely prevent Iraq, which still possesses significant numbers of Russian-built T-72 tanks, Su-25 attack planes and helicopter gunships, from launching an attack it would at least show Washington's opposition to Baghdad so readily resorting to the use of force.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has made evident from its statements that it doesn't want any such escalation to happen. During the premiership of Nouri al-Maliki President Barzani urged Washington not to sell Iraq F-16s while Maliki was in power. Maliki spoke to his generals about one day invading Erbil, but only after those jets were delivered.
In an Al Jazeera interview from the time Barzani was asked about the prospect of these warplanes being used against Kurdistan if delivered. To the Kurds, Barzani explained, there was little difference between these jets and the older MiGs used against Kurdistan by Iraq in past wars. He elaborated by saying that having warplanes, tanks, artillery and large numbers of troops attacking Kurdistan again wasn't what he and the Kurds feared but rather the mentality which still believes that the use of such lethal weaponry is the way to resolve Iraq's disputes and problems.
The same is true today despite Baghdad's harsh treatment of post-referendum Kurdistan, Barzani and the KRG are maintaining a wholly defensive posture while strongly urging the resumption of talks and a cessation of threats. This is essentially in line with how the US hopes this crisis will be resolved.
Although in the long-term the United States may move closer Erbil since the April election in Iraq could further empower the pro-Iranian elements in the Iraqi government which are much less friendly, and conciliatory, to the US and its interests in Iraq than Abadi.
It's worth remembering that in the faithful summer of 2014 the US fired its opening salvos on ISIS two whole months after Mosul's fall in June. It was ISIS's attack on the Kurdistan Region in early August and advance toward Erbil, with American-made weapons which the Iraqi Army abandoned, that prompted Washington to attack the militants and go to war. Earlier, as ISIS were marching toward Baghdad, the US didn't act at all because the Obama administration viewed working with Maliki as problematic given his past policies, particularly against Iraq's Sunni minority, and consequently conditioned US military support to Iraq on Maliki stepping down, which he did in September.
If Maliki and his associates attain more power after the aforementioned April election the present US balancing act between Baghdad and Erbil may be difficult to sustain and the Americans may gradually fall back on the latter, where their construction of an enormous consulate is a testament to their own interests in the continued stability, survival and success of this region.