Middle East

Tillerson Letters Show U.S. Nearly Averted Kurdish Referendum

The secretary of state offered internationally backed negotiations for independence, but too late.

The referendum that almost wasn't.

Photographer: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. came very close to getting the Kurds to call off a statehood referendum that has thrown the region into turmoil since late last month. But in the end the final proposal, made just two days before the independence vote was scheduled for the Kurdistan region of Iraq, came too late to stop the vote.

The president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, rejected this last-minute offer from the U.S., United Kingdom and Iraq to call off the Sept. 25 referendum. Those nations were offering an internationally supported negotiation between the Kurds and Baghdad for greater autonomy and possible independence.

According to drafts of a previously unreported Sept. 23 letter from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Barzani, the offer promised U.S. and U.N. support for a one-year dialogue between the Kurds and the government of Baghdad to address a number of outstanding issues that have roiled that relationship in recent years.

These include the status of the Kurdish militias known as the Peshmerga, agreements on civil aviation to the Kurdistan region, sharing national oil revenues, the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk and diplomatic representation of Barzani's diplomats in foreign capitals.

Most important, the final draft of the Tillerson letter says that if the negotiations fail because of bad faith from Baghdad, "we would recognize the need for a referendum."

The tragedy of this episode is that Barzani and other Kurdish leaders have all promised that the referendum is not the same as a declaration of independence. Instead, they have called upon Iraqi prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, to enter into the very kind of negotiation that Abadi, Tillerson and the British had offered in the Sept. 23 letter.

That offer appears to no longer be valid. In the last 24 hours, Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi militias and army forces have come perilously close to one another near Kirkuk, an oil-rich city from which Iraq's former dictator Saddam Hussein purged Kurds. Kurdish Peshmerga have secured that city since 2014, when the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of an Islamic State offensive. Barzani has sent more Peshmerga in recent days to the area while Iraqi national police, army and militias have gathered south of the city at Bashir.

Tillerson's letter dispels the widely held view in the Middle East that the U.S. had not been attuned to Kurdish frustrations with Baghdad.

"Mr. President, we recognize your frustrations over the past decade, and, indeed, the historic wrongs suffered by the Kurdish people in Iraq since 1921," Tillerson wrote. He went on to say, "It is the policy of the United States under the administration of President Trump to do everything in our power to help you and the central government resolve these outstanding issues, and ensure that our full weight and authority stand behind this new framework for negotiation." Tillerson also acknowledges, "Given the history of the Kurdish people, we understand that you would envision this proposed dialogue as a last chance." 

U.S. and British diplomats familiar with the diplomacy say the idea for the letter to Barzani making this offer came from some members of his own political party, who said Barzani would be amenable to calling off the vote if the U.S. promised to support a Kurdish referendum at a later date. But this was a promise the U.S. never believed it could deliver. A Sept. 20 draft of the letter for example did not promise any support for the referendum, but said if the negotiations failed "you would lose none of the options that you currently enjoy."

Over the next three days this section of the letter was strengthened. The final version said, "At the end of this process, of course, should the talks not reach a mutually acceptable conclusion or fail on account of lack of good faith on the part of Baghdad we would recognize the need for a referendum."

Extended sooner, that assurance might have worked. One British official involved in the diplomacy told me Barzani privately said he could have supported the offer for the dialogue had it been made earlier, but by Sept. 23, Iraqi Kurds abroad had already started voting in the independence referendum.

It's not as if the U.S. had no warning this was coming. Barzani himself had announced the referendum in June. Kurdish delegations had traveled to Washington and Baghdad to discuss the issue that month as well. It's a shame it took so long for the U.S. and its allies to come up with an alternative. Now far more diplomatic capital is being spent to mitigate the consequences of the Kurdish referendum the U.S. came very close to getting delayed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

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    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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