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Kurdish Referendum Could Spell Disaster

U.S. will need to be prepared to cope with the backlash against it.

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 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” 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 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 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 in Iraq and Syria to counter security threats. Iran has begun military exercises 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.]

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 that violence will break out during or after the vote. Morgan Kaplan and Ramzy Mardini warned 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



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