By Bryant Harris December 12, 2017
US support for the Iraqi Kurds, it turns out, has its boundaries.
Despite the Pentagon’s support for peshmerga fighters’ salaries and equipment, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is quickly learning that President Donald Trump shares his predecessor’s reluctance to help set them free. Erbil’s decision to hold a referendum on independence in September was met with dismay on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, with no amount of lobbying firepower able to overcome US concerns about an Iraqi implosion.
And when Baghdad stepped in to regain control of disputed territory the Kurds had taken over during the fight against the Islamic State, the Donald Trump administration made it clear it did not have their backs.
"We've had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds as you know and we've also been on the side of Iraq," President Trump declared on Oct. 16, just as Baghdad's move to retake Kirkuk threatened to trigger a conflagration between the two US allies. "We're not taking sides in that battle."
Even Capitol Hill, where support for the Kurds runs deep, is hitting the brakes. The House Armed Services Committee warned in its draft annual Defense bill in June that future aid to the peshmerga would be “contingent upon KRG participation in the government of a unified Iraq and on their continued good faith cooperation in the anti-[IS] campaign.”
The language stands in sharp contrast to last year’s House Defense bill draft, which had endorsed directly arming the peshmerga. The provision did not survive reconciliation with the Senate, where Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., remains a vocal champion of the Kurds.
"Let me be clear," McCain wrote in an Oct. 24 New York Times op-ed. "If Baghdad cannot guarantee the Kurdish people in Iraq the security, freedom and opportunities they desire, and if the United States is forced to choose between Iranian-backed militias and our longstanding Kurdish partners, I choose the Kurds."
Predictably, the lack of support from a longtime friend and ally have infuriated Erbil.
"It behooves the United States to push [Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-] Abadi to sit down and negotiate," Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG representative in Washington, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "We know the United States wants to teach the Kurds a lesson, but how far does the U.S. want Baghdad to go?
The Kurds aren’t giving up on Washington without a fight. In addition to its US liaison office, which received $1.34 million from Erbil in 2016, the KRG spent more than $200,000 on five lobbying firms to get its message across in 2016.
And just days after the release of the House Defense bill, Erbil’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party hired the conservative husband-and-wife team diGenova & Toensing to lobby the administration and Congress on “the September 2017 Kurdistan referendum on independence and [Department of Defense] funding issues.”
The lobbying blitz comes as Iraq’s cash-strapped central government had to part ways earlier this year with its longtime lobbyist, the Podesta Group, after spending $720,000 on lobbying and public relations in 2016. Turkey, which spent almost $3 million on lobbying Washington in 2016, also opposed the referendum, which it fears could spark similar calls for independence across the region.
The tiff over the referendum risks lasting damage to US-Kurdish relations that have reached new heights in many other respects.
The Department of Defense is asking for $365 million for peshmerga salaries and equipment for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, after seeking $289.5 million when the stipend payments began last year. Much of that aid is on hold however after Erbil and Washington failed to extend a Memorandum of Understanding that expired in July.
And in April of this year, the State Department greenlit a $295.6 million potential arms sale to the peshmerga. The sale consists of small arms and nonlethal military equipment for two light infantry brigades, but Kurdish sources told Al-Monitor in September that they had yet to receive any of it.
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