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Kurdish Referendum Could Spell Disaster

The independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is going forward today against the wishes of all of the neighboring states and most other governments around the world.

The UN Security Council has warned [1] that it could have a “destabilizing impact,” and the U.S. has issued similar statements expressing Washington’s opposition to the vote. Iraq, Iran, and Turkey are already preparing to coordinate “counter-measures” [2] in response to the vote. The vote is almost certainly going to return an overwhelming majority in favor of creating a Kurdish state, but that isn’t making any of these governments more inclined to accept it. Turkey in particular has been very vocal in making thinly-veiled threats [3] against Kurds in Iraq if they proceed:

Turkey said on Saturday it would take security and other steps in response to a planned independence referendum in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region that it called a “terrible mistake”, as a Kurdish delegation arrived in Baghdad for talks.

Turkey has also said [4] that there will be “serious consequences” if the vote goes ahead. That isn’t an explicit threat to attack, but it is close to it. The Turkish parliament also reauthorized military intervention [5] in Iraq and Syria to counter security threats. Iran has begun military exercises [6] along its border as well.


[Editor’s Note: Today The American Conservative presents both the case for and against Kurdish independence. See Ali Javanmardi’s case for U.S. support for Kurdish Independence, here. [7]]

Iraq’s constitutional court ordered last week that the vote be suspended, and the Iraqi government maintained even before that ruling that the vote itself is unconstitutional. The decision to include the disputed city of Kirkuk raised tensions still higher, and the Iraqi government has said that it will intervene militarily in the event of post-referendum violence. It is likely [8] that violence will break out during or after the vote. Morgan Kaplan and Ramzy Mardini warned [8] about this last week:

Rhetoric has ratcheted up to now involve military threats. No place is more of a potential flash point than the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which has been under the control of Kurdish forces since 2014. Threats from Baghdad and Tehran have increased risk of a violent clash.

If the referendum triggers new armed conflicts in Iraq, the people living in Kurdistan will be the main losers. A region that is already wracked by war and instability may have to endure another multi-sided conflict for years to come.

Supporters of the referendum say that it is only intended to strengthen Iraqi Kurdistan’s position in future negotiations over independence with Baghdad, but proceeding with the vote over Baghdad’s objections practically guarantees that there will be no negotiations. While the referendum won’t immediately lead to the creation of a new state, it has nonetheless alarmed all of the regional governments that are vehemently opposed to such an outcome. The overwhelmingly negative reaction from Turkey, Iran, and Iraq all bode ill for the future of any Kurdish state that might eventually emerge, and without their goodwill or at least their grudging acceptance it is difficult to see how a new state would be successful. Pressing ahead with this referendum now just makes all of these governments that much more hostile, and that is why it should have been called off.

Since the vote isn’t going to be cancelled, the U.S. will need to be prepared to cope with the backlash against it. A new conflict between Iraqi Kurds and their neighbors would distract from the campaign against ISIS, and it could potentially put U.S. forces at greater risk. It is imperative that the U.S. not let our military be pulled into a new conflict, and it should offer only humanitarian assistance and diplomatic mediation.

The U.S. should do what it can diplomatically to persuade the Turkish and Iraqi governments not to use force, but in the end Washington will need to recognize that our understanding of the local politics and its influence over them are both very limited.

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at The American Conservative. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLarison [9]

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Kurdish Referendum Could Spell Disaster"

#1 Comment By Robert On September 24, 2017 @ 9:27 pm

Beautiful play by
Israel. World opinion will of course support the Kurds and make their enemies look like the bad guys. Divide and conquer is here to stay!!!!

#2 Comment By Kurt Gayle On September 24, 2017 @ 9:44 pm

It’s not even imaginable that Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran will accept the results of this very unwise referendum.

#3 Comment By mohammad On September 25, 2017 @ 12:43 am

The Kurds in Iraq act like drunkards. Years of easy oil money and the prosperity brought by foreign investors have made them very delusional about themselves. Add to that the congratulatory tone they have been used to hearing from the Western media and Western leaders during last decade about their great progress and how much Kurdistan is better than everywhere else in the region! They are for a rude sobering soon, I am afraid.

#4 Comment By Dominique Watkins On September 25, 2017 @ 9:37 am

I don’t know guys. The Kurds are a nation. I read somewhere the largest population without its own country. Seems unrealistic to expect them to act otherwise. What happened to the idea of subsidiarity? Why are the Kurds a special case? It would be different if it were Yazidi because they are simply too few. Better to migrate to a pacific island and be left alone. But there are too many Kurds to tell them they can’t be their own country. War or not.

#5 Comment By To Reason Why On September 25, 2017 @ 11:04 am

Israel seems to want a Middle East composed of much smaller nations, non-nuclear of course, that hate each other more than they hate Israel. An independent Kurdish state conduces to that goal, and so American politicians in the pay of America’s Israel Lobby are pushing for it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if America considered matters like this through the lens of its own interests rather than Israel’s?

#6 Comment By JK On September 25, 2017 @ 11:14 am

If the Kurds want to risk war to gain independence, it is their choice to make. It is intellectually dishonest to hint there’s any chance they could gain independence without war. If war breaks it’s a problem for a 3rd party that wants to befriend both sides – but that’s what you get for meddling in other people’s conflict.

#7 Comment By fabian On September 25, 2017 @ 12:46 pm

I feel sympathy for the Kurds. They remind me of my Swiss forebears in the 12th century (albeit they had no oil). They’ll have to fight for it. No way around it. Good luck to them.

#8 Comment By Rossbach On September 25, 2017 @ 8:40 pm

There is only one sensible position for the US to take on this issue: none. Let the Turks, Iraqis, Syrians, Iranians, etc. fight each other to a bloody standstill if that is their wish. The US has no vital interest to protect in “Kurdistan”. We can – and should – walk away from this.

#9 Comment By Ivan On September 25, 2017 @ 10:22 pm

My message from Croatia to Kurdish people is – fight for your freedom! Believe in it and no matter how difficult or desperate it might sometimes look, keep up and you will succeed as we did. Trust only yourselves and aim at your clear final objective – a free Kurdish state. Any compromise is weakness and something you’ve already gone through. The future is yours. Good luck!

#10 Comment By Peter Palms On September 27, 2017 @ 11:43 am

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