At long last, Iraq’s Kurdistan Region (KR) has held its independence referendum. The votes will be counted for the next few days, but pre-referendum predictions and the initial results point to a strong “yes” vote. In a sense, the decision to go forward with the referendum remains more provocative than whatever the final vote count may be. It won’t exactly be a surprise if 70, 80, or 90% of Iraq’s Kurds (not to mention the non-Kurdish residents of the KR) vote for independence after enjoying more than two decades of near-total autonomy and three years of fending for themselves against ISIS.
The vote itself won’t immediately trigger secession, but will instead prompt independence talks between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government in Baghdad. But the neighbors of a potential Kurdistan have already started making threats about the consequences the new state would face. As the Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency reports:
Turkey and Iraq will launch a joint military exercise on the Turkish-Iraqi border on Tuesday following a controversial referendum in northern Iraq, according to the Turkish military late Monday.
Turkey started its military manoeuvers in southeastern Silopi region on Sept. 18, a week ahead of the referendum on independence in northern Iraq. [….]
In a brief statement on its official website, the Turkish General Staff said the third phase of the military exercise will start on Tuesday jointly with the Iraqi military in the Habur border gate, also known as Ibrahim Khalil border crossing, on the Turkish-Iraqi border in Silopi district of Sirnak province.
Iran, for its part, has closed its airspace to flights bound for the KR at Baghdad’s request and is holding war games along the border. The Turks have stated that the border crossing has not been closed, but the obvious implication that cross-border traffic could be closed was made explicit by the ever-colorful Turkish President Erdogan. Hurriyet Daily:
“There are several measures on the table… We will see through which channels the northern Iraqi regional government will send its oil, or where it will sell it,” he said in a speech.
“We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then it’s done.”
As if that wasn’t theatrical enough, Erdogan was also quoted as threatening that “we can come unexpectedly in the night.”
For now, the most noteworthy result is that Turkey hasn’t actually taken punitive measures in response to the vote. An independent Iraqi Kurdistan is arguably less threatening to Turkey than any of its would-be neighbors. While it would end the territorial integrity of Iraq and risk joining with the autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, an independent KR would instantly become a Turkish tributary, entirely reliant upon Turkey for its links to the outside world. As we’ve written before, an independent KR would see an end to the oil sharing agreement between Erbil and Baghdad, thus further lining Turkey’s pockets with oil money. For all of its fears of Kurdish separatism, Turkey might just go along with Kurdish independence provided it can be given a few billion reasons to look the other way.
The U.S. position after the referendum on the other hand is only going to get more and more uncomfortable. Officially, the U.S. pushed for the KR to postpone the vote in the interest of focusing on the anti-ISIS campaign. That effort failed. The U.S. now finds itself as the largest foreign backer of a would-be breakaway state under potential threat from a U.S. ally (Turkey), a U.S. partner (Iraq), and a U.S. adversary (Iran). To the extent that the federal Iraqi government isn’t already under the complete domination of Iran, the Kurdish issue threatens to destroy what remains of U.S. influence. Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi yesterday rejected an independent Kurdistan as constituting a “sectarian, racist state.” That’s the baseline of rhetoric that he will have to maintain going into the Iraqi parliamentary elections in April, and that’s coming from arguably one of the most pro-American Iraqi nationalist politicians in the country. Pro-Iranian politicians, not to mention Iranian-backed militias, will go much further.
If we were to imagine that the KR somehow achieves independence, its creation would have two consequences for the United States. Lacking any other export routes for its oil or access to the outside world, the independent Kurdish state would be almost entirely reliant upon Turkey, a country that has grown increasingly distant from the United States and its fellow NATO allies. Secondly, its creation would cement a similar vassalage relationship between Iran and rump-Iraq, ending once and for all American influence over a country into which the U.S. has spent enormous blood and treasure since 2003.
While Americans might feel warm and fuzzy about the creation of a new, pro-America, pro-Israel, democratic and largely secular state in the Middle East, the uncomfortable truth is that the U.S. has been well served by a status quo that after the referendum will be extremely difficult to maintain. The U.S. has plenty of leverage over the Iraqi Kurds—it could withdraw funding and support for the Peshmerga, or close U.S. military bases—but that leverage doesn’t mean much if the U.S. is unwilling to use it.
Instead, with the KRG in the drivers seat, U.S. “mediation” will be of questionable value. If the U.S. isn’t going to stop the push for Kurdish independence, then it will need to both deal with the consequences as well as recognize that there is a risk of serious military conflict both in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. If the U.S. wants to delay Kurdish independence or maintain the status quo, it’s going to have to start throwing a lot more weight into the issue.