The State Department on Thursday issued a press release from Secretary of State Tillerson rejecting the legitimacy of the Kurdistan Region (KR) independence referendum, which saw 93% of voters demand independence. After the half-hearted requests that the Kurds delay the vote, this is the strongest message so far from the Trump Administration that it’s not simply going to let the Kurdistan Regional Government force America’s hand. The State Department:
The United States does not recognize the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unilateral referendum held on Monday.
The vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.
We remain concerned about the potential negative consequences of this unilateral step. Prior to the vote, we worked with both the KRG and the central government in Baghdad to pursue a more productive framework and to promote stability and prosperity for the people of the Kurdistan region. These aspirations, ultimately, cannot be advanced through unilateral measures such as this referendum.
We urge calm and an end to vocal recriminations and threats of reciprocal actions. We urge Iraqi Kurdish authorities to respect the constitutionally-mandated role of the central government and we call upon the central government to reject threats or even allusion to possible use of force. The United States asks all parties, including Iraq’s neighbors, to reject unilateral actions and the use of force.
The KR’s neighbors are nonetheless stepping up those punitive actions as we speak. On Friday at 6PM Iraqi time, the federal government in Baghdad demanded the halt of all international flights. As a result, the KR’s only independent link to the outside world now runs through the land border with Turkey. Domestic flights between the KR and southern Iraq are still open, but will nonetheless make things extremely complicated for foreign companies in the KR. The KR, for one thing, issues its own visas; getting visas from the federal government in Baghdad is substantially more expensive and onerous. That’s assuming domestic flights even continue; Erbil airport might be forced to close without international flight revenues. Unsurprisingly, foreigners have been scrambling to exit the KR for the past 24 hours. The economic consequences of this pseudo-blockade could be immense.
What will happen next remains unclear. The federal government’s demands include subjecting “all oil revenues in Kurdistan region…to federal control, audit and jurisdiction” and “all land & air border-crossings to be returned to the control of the Federal Borders Authority.” After decades of autonomy and with the Peshmerga fully in control of the borders, there is precisely zero reason to think that that will happen. As a result, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense issued a vague statement threatening that it would seize the KR’s borders by force in coordination with Iran and Turkey.
As we wrote last week, now is the time for meticulous and determined American diplomacy. Overly cavalier pundits pushing for the U.S. to overthrow the status quo and back immediate Kurdish independence fail to appreciate the risks of the present situation. A slew of such commentary leading up to and following the referendum has suggested that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would lead inevitably lead to the further secession of Iran’s Kurdish provinces (or Turkey’s Kurdish provinces, for those who view undermining Turkey as a good thing.) Or they suggest that the new state would somehow counter Iran’s dominance of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
This is an oversimplification of the situation mixed with an ample dose of wishful thinking. All of the KR’s neighbors would go to war to prevent that result. The only possible protector and guarantor of Kurdish sovereignty in that circumstance would be the United States. The U.S. was willing to militarily guarantee the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan against Saddam Hussein’s regime after 1991 by imposing no-fly zones, but the United States has not signed on for a ground war against Iraq, Iran, and Turkey.
There’s also very little reason to think the KR intends or is likely to play such a role. The KR government’s President Barzani has made clear that he intends for the referendum to be the start of negotiations, not the end. So long as the land border and pipeline to Turkey remain open, Turkey holds the upper hand. Erdogan can more or less name his terms to Barzani. With sufficient guarantees (and enough cold hard cash and light sweet crude), he might be convinced to back some kind of independent Iraqi KR. For now, he can play both sides, holding military drills with the Iraqi government along the border while likely conducting backroom negotiations. Either way, the KR is far more likely to end up as a Turkish tributary than an instrument of American geopolitics.
The post-referendum negotiations could also strengthen Iran. The referendum has already brought Iran closer together with Turkey. But the independence negotiations might strengthen Iran’s hand within the KR as well. Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) were the principal authors of the referendum. But Barzani’s political rivals, the PUK, which has a regionally distinct political power base, is much closer to the Iranian regime. It’s certainly easier to imagine the Kurds striking some deal with Iran—perhaps trading Kurdish assent for a more pro-Iranian, anti-American parliament in the upcoming elections in April, similar to the 2010 deal that secured the re-election of Nouri al-Maliki, in exchange for open borders, more oil concessions and greater autonomy—than the U.S. offering anything to the KR that could compensate for total isolation from its neighbors. The U.S. loss of influence in the federal Iraqi government should be a warning; Iran’s proximity and guarantee of staying power gives it advantages in long-term influence that the U.S. may find difficult to match.
If the KR wants to pursue independence at all costs, that is their right. But the annual U.S. provision of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Peshmerga has not been a blank check for U.S. commitment to an endeavor that risks fundamentally undermining the regional position of the United States. A good outcome here would be to find a way to negotiate a settlement that strengthens pro-American voices in the federal Iraqi government like Prime Minister Abadi, that keeps the land route through Turkey open, and with it the possibility for Turkish support for the KR, and that excludes or undermines Iran as much as possible. That will require mediation, not a precipitous drive for independence.
Americans and Iraqi Kurds have shared values and have shed blood together such that it’s virtually impossible not to have a deep and abiding sympathy for the cause of Kurdish independence. It’s not the fault of the Kurds that the United States cannot guarantee their independence; it’s the fault of their neighbors. There is much that the United States can and should do to advance the cause Kurdish independence. But the present threats to Iraqi Kurdistan following this referendum are immense. The best favor that the United States can offer is to help each side back away from the precipice.