The leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan may have miscalculated with this week’s independence referendum, creating unnecessary problems for the United States, the Iraqi government and themselves. But that’s all the more reason for America to work hard now to de-escalate tensions that could destabilize its Kurdish allies.
The Kurds say that 92.7 percent of those voting on Monday supported independence. But U.S. officials caution that turnout was low in some areas, especially among non-Kurdish minorities. Meanwhile, Turkey and Iran — fearful that the independence mood will spread among their own Kurdish minorities — have made threatening military moves along the Kurdish border; Iraq has warned it may halt international flights into Kurdistan.
Top Kurdish officials say they need help now in calming the situation, and they’re right. Trump administration officials say they’re prepared to help manage the aftermath of the vote and encourage discussions with Baghdad. But this is a problem Washington should address sooner, rather than later, regardless of who is to blame.
For Washington, the Kurdish referendum has been like watching a slow-motion car wreck. Months ago, administration officials began urging Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, to postpone the balloting, which the United States feared would threaten Iraq’s fragile political balance and anger Kursdistan’s neighbors, Turkey and Iran.
But Barzani felt the burden of more than a century of Western betrayal of Kurdish aspirations. He wanted the independence vote as a political legacy, even though his aides quietly assured the United States that any actual separation would be years away and negotiated with Baghdad.
The Trump administration wasn’t swayed, despite broad support in Washington for the Kurds, who have been a steadfast partner even as other Iraqi groups have proven unreliable. U.S. officials felt that the referendum was ill-timed and harmful to U.S. interests in the region. That view was shared by the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council staff, whose top officials are all longtime supporters of the Kurds.
As a face-saving alternative for Barzani, the State Department is said to have crafted a “road map” for a three-year process of negotiation, sponsored by the United Nations, dealing with all the major disputes between Kurdistan and Baghdad, including the independence issue. But U.S. officials say the Kurds rejected this compromise and pushed ahead with the vote.
“We were forced to do it because Iraqi governments have violated so many articles of the constitution,” wrote Masrour Barzani, the president’s son and chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, which oversees Kurdish intelligence activities, in an email. He told me that Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi “has announced dangerous measures that penalize Kurdistanis” and that after the referendum, “Kurdistan now seeks dialogue rooted in mutual respect.”
The heart of Barzani’s message was his request for U.S. help. “America should support its allies and de-escalate tensions. No other country is better positioned,” he wrote. “I’m concerned about U.S. passivity in the face of military threats against Kurdistan.”
However ill-timed the Kurdish referendum may have been, it was a decision by a friend, reflecting a history of suffering. The United States owes it to the Kurds to help broker their dialogue with Baghdad. The right place to start is an agreement safeguarding international air travel, Kurdistan’s connection with the world.