Middle East Ticker

Backlash to Kurdish Independence Referendum Begins, Trump Has Made Decision on Iran Deal, Russian and U.S.-backed Forces Converge in Syria

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, September 26, 2017, 11:00 AM

Iraqi Kurds Vote on Secession, Backlash Begins

Iraqi Kurds went to the polls yesterday to vote on a referendum to determine whether or not to initiate a political process to secede from Iraq. While the ballots are still being tallied, the outcome is almost certainly an overwhelming vote in favor of independence; polling places reported high turnout and the mood in Kurdish districts was festive. There would never be a convenient time for Iraq’s Kurds to seek their own state, but the referendum comes at a particularly fraught moment. Many foreign leaders, including those most supportive of the Kurdish cause, discouraged the vote and worried that it would be a reckless provocation despite a full-court press lobbying effort by pro-independence Kurds. Last minute talks supported by the United States to try to reach an arrangement to postpone the referendum failed.

There would never be a convenient time for Iraq’s Kurds to seek their own state, but the referendum comes at a particularly fraught moment.

Now comes the backlash. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered Kurdish officials to pass control of border crossings and airports to the central government and has urged foreign countries not to import Kurdish oil. Iraqi troops have also begun moving toward contested areas; last week, Arab leaders in the mixed Arab and Kurdish city of Kirkuk said they would request Baghdad’s protection if the vote went through prompting concerns of a military occupation.

The Kurdistan Regional Government’s neighbors, Iran and Turkey, are also deeply concerned—especially about how the referendum might affect their own Kurdish minorities. Turkey is reportedly coordinating with Iraqi forces to conduct joint drills later in the week and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened military action. “Our military is not [at the border] for nothing,” he said at a conference in Istanbul yesterday. "We could arrive suddenly one night." The Iranian government closed its border crossings with Iraqi Kurdistan in advance of the vote and also carried out military exercises near the border over the weekend in an apparent show of force. There are approximately 8 million Kurds in Iran—nearly as many as in Iraq, they account for 10 percent of the Iranian population. Iranian Kurds celebrated in the streets yesterday in solidarity with the Iraqi vote next door; large rallies went late into the night and some were broken up by security forces.

The Trump administration signalled its frustration with the referendum on Monday. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the United States is “deeply disappointed” that the vote was held, but also said it would not affect the U.S.-Kurdish relationship. “The United States' historic relationship with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region will not change in light of today's non-binding referendum, but we believe this step will increase instability and hardships for the Kurdistan region and its people,” she said.

 

Trump Has Made Up His Mind on Iran Deal, But Won’t Tell Allies His Decision

President Donald Trump used his speech at the U.N. General Assembly last week to once again criticize the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” That didn’t sit well with other parties to the agreement. French President Emmanuel Macron, who has offered to work with the United States and Iran to negotiate a follow-on agreement, defended the deal, which he said is “solid, robust and verifiable” and “essential for peace.” At a meeting of diplomats from the P5+1 states to discuss the status of the agreement, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s top diplomat, argued that the “international community cannot afford to dismantle an agreement that is working and delivering.” “We already have one potential nuclear crisis,” she told reporters. “[T]hat means we do not need to go into a second one.” After the meeting, Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, conceded that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement even if it was not meeting U.S. “expectations.”

Efforts to sway the Trump administration on the JCPOA may be a lost cause at this point; at the United Nations last week, Tillerson confirmed that Trump has already made his decision about whether or not he will recertify the agreement next month, though the administration has not announced its position yet and Trump declined to tell British Prime Minister Theresa May in a recent meeting. Amb. Nikki Haley set the stage for a contentious congressional debate over the JCPOA in a speech at AEI earlier this month, and the administration appears to be drawing up new sanctions targeting Tehran. But those sanctions will have little bite if other states don’t adopt them as well—that’s part of what made the sanctions that preceded the nuclear negotiations so effective. As Foreign Policy reported yesterday, Iran has reasserted itself in the oil market and the United States has not made an effective case to the countries importing Iran’s oil to find a different supplier.

Efforts to sway the Trump administration on the JCPOA may be a lost cause at this point; at the United Nations last week, Tillerson confirmed that Trump has already made his decision...

Trump’s crusade against the Iran deal got particularly weird on Saturday evening, when Trump seemed to falsely report an Iranian missile launch. Trump tweeted that Iran had “just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel.They are also working with North Korea.Not much of an agreement we have!” The tweet followed a report from Iran’s English-language state media, Press TV, that showed video of a launch, but U.S. officials told reporters that there was no evidence that Iran had conducted a new test and the video shown by Press TV was from January. (As BuzzFeed notes, the January incident made headlines in the United States and prompted then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to put Iran “on notice” in a confusing White House briefing.) Despite the missile launch apparently never having occurred, Trump’s tweet was still posted online on Tuesday morning.

The administration’s most recent, and probably most predictable, barb directed at Tehran was the inclusion of Iran once again in its latest executive order on immigration. Under the order, Iranian citizens can only visit the United States on student or exchange visitor visas and will be “subject to enhanced screening and vetting requirements.” Lawfare has covered the travel ban’s various iterations closely, and has published several insightful pieces on this latest version. One thing worth noting about Iran’s inclusion is that it was also suggested by former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton in his recent white paper on how to withdraw from the JCPOA and shift to a more aggressive policy toward Iran; in fact, Bolton suggested the United States go further and “[e]nd all visas for Iranians, including so called ‘scholarly,’ student, sports, or other exchanges.” Despite Bolton complaining that he’s been shut out from advising the administration, his dangerous suggestions appear to still be finding a receptive audience.

 

Russia Bombs U.S.-backed Rebels as They Converge in Eastern Syria

Tensions are continuing to rise between Russian-backed regime forces and U.S.-backed militias in the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition in eastern Syria as they converge on the Islamic State-held city of Deir Ezzour. Not long ago, Russia seemed reluctant to support the regime’s push to reclaim Syria’s desert reaches near the Iraq border, and Moscow has maintained good relations with Syria’s Kurdish factions. But now they are coming into conflict.

U.S. officials have emphasized the importance of deconflicting airstrikes to avoid situations like this, but that process is designed to avoid mistakes—the strikes on SDF troops appear to be intentional.

SDF forces say they have been bombed twice in recent weeks by Russian warplanes; a Russian attack yesterday on SDF fighters at a gas plant captured from the Islamic State left six people wounded. Last Thursday, Russian military officials warned that they would return fire if they came under attack from SDF forces, which they said had happened twice in recent days. On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also blamed “the duplicity of U.S. policy” in Syria for the death of Lt. Gen. Valery Asapov, who was killed by Islamic State shelling in Deir Ezzour.

U.S. officials have emphasized the importance of deconflicting airstrikes to avoid situations like this, but that process is designed to avoid mistakes—the strikes on SDF troops appear to be intentional. "We put our full efforts into preventing unnecessary escalation among forces that share ISIS as our common enemy,” Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk II said earlier this month. U.S. forces have also reportedly withdrawn from a strategic position north of the Syria-Iraq border as part of an agreement with Moscow.