Kurdistan Referendum Crisis: Next Steps for U.S. Policy

On November 13th, United States Institute of Peace Director for Middle East Programs, Mr. Sarhang Hamasaeed and Former Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council, Dr. Kenneth Pollack discussed Iraq’s future after the Kurdistan referendum. The discussion was moderated by Christopher Blanchard, a Specialist for Middle East Affairs with the Congressional Research Service. The briefing focused on the referendum, the likelihood of Independence for the Kurdish people going forward, and policy options for the United States.

This was a closed, off-the-record event for congressional staff.

On September 25th, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum on independence resulting in a 92% vote in favor. The vote immedietly caused chaos as regional players jockeyed to protect interests, punish the Kurds, and prevent the spread of independence movements. In the weeks following the referendum, Iraqi forces, along with Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, retook much of the land seized by the Kurdish Peshmerge when they pushed out ISIS. The KRG offered to freeze the referendum results and begin a dialogue with Baghdad but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected the offer. KRG President Masoud Barzani stepped down on November 1st.

The event discussed how the Kurdish independence referendum developed and the response from Iraq and its neighbors to the overwhelming vote in favor of independence. Speakers offered views on why the Kurds felt this was the time to hold the vote, the Iraqi and US response to the announcement, the impact of Iranian influence on Iraq’s response, and how the Kurds move forward from here. Recommendations were provided for U.S. policy in Iraq.


Sarhang Hamasaeed

Sarhang HamasaeedSarhang Hamasaeed is the director of Middle East Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP). He joined USIP in February 2011 and works on program management, organizational development, and monitoring and evaluation. His areas of focus include political and policy analysis, conflict analysis, dialogue processes, reconciliation and post-conflict stabilization, and ethnic and religious minorities. He writes, gives media interviews to international media, and is featured on events and briefings on Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East. He provided analysis to NPR, Voice of America, Al-Jazeera America, Fox News Al-Hurra TV, Radio Sawa, Kurdistan TV, Kurdsat TV, Rudaw, Al-Iraqiya TV, NRT TV, Skynews Arabia, the Washington Times, PBS, and CCTV. He is a member on the Task Force on the Future of Iraq, and was member of the Rebuilding Societies Working Group under the Middle East Strategy Taskforce, both initiatives by the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He regularly gives a lecture at the Foreign Service Institute on ISIL and Challenges to Governance in Iraq.

Hamasaeed has more than 15 years of strategy, management, and monitoring and evaluation experience in governmental, nongovernmental, private sector, and media organizations.

As a deputy director general at the Council of Ministers of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (2008-2009), Hamasaeed managed strategic government modernization initiatives through information technology with the goal of helping improve governance and service delivery. As a program manager for the Research Triangle Institute International (2003-2004), he managed civic engagement and local democratic governance programs in Iraq. Hamasaeed has worked as a planning and relations manager at Kurdistan Save the Children (1997-2002). Hamasaeed has also worked for the Los Angeles Times and other international media organizations.

He holds a Master’s degree in International Development Policy from Duke University (2007) and is a Fulbright alumnus.


Dr. Kenneth Pollack

Kenneth M. Pollack is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on Middle Eastern political-military affairs, focusing in particular on Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries.

Before joining AEI, Dr. Pollack was affiliated with the Brookings Institution, where he was a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. Before that, he was the center’s director and director of research. Dr. Pollack served twice at the National Security Council, first as director for Near East and South Asian affairs and then as director for Persian Gulf affairs. He began his career as a Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA, where he was the principal author of the CIA’s classified postmortem on Iraqi strategy and military operations during the Persian Gulf War. Among other recognitions, Dr. Pollack was awarded the CIA’s Exceptional Performance Award twice and the Certificate of Distinction for Outstanding Performance of Duty, both for work on the Persian Gulf War.

Dr. Pollack has also worked on long-term issues related to Middle Eastern political and military affairs for the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he was a senior research professor at the Institute for National Security Studies at National Defense University.

Dr. Pollack is the author of nine books, including “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy” (Simon & Schuster, 2013), named one of the “Best Books of 2013” by The Economist and one of the “100 Notable Books of 2013” by The New York Times; “A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East” (Random House, 2008), a Washington Post and Foreign Affairs bestseller, which was chosen as one of The Washington Post’s “Best Books of the Year” for 2008 and as an editor’s choice of The New York Times Book Review; “The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America” (Random House, 2004); and “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq” (Random House, 2002), a New York Times and Washington Post bestseller.

Dr. Pollack is the author of numerous articles and has been published in The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, and The Atlantic, among others.

He received his bachelor’s from Yale University and a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Christopher Blanchard

Christopher Blanchard is a Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) where his work emphasizes the roles, responsibilities, and prerogatives of Congress in shaping U.S. foreign policy. His current projects focus on Iraq, the conflict in Syria, the Islamic State organization and related issues, including U.S. foreign assistance, arms sale and security assistance policy, and the conduct of oversight. Mr. Blanchard joined CRS as a Presidential Management Fellow in 2004 and holds degrees from Boston College and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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