Middle East

The U.S. Must Tell Its Allies to Back Off the Kurds

Iraq and Turkey are panicking, but the Trump administration can defuse this time bomb.

Iraq's Kurds are waving flags, not waging war. No need to escalate.

Photographer: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images

No one expected the neighbors to be happy when Iraq's Kurds voted for independence this week. After all, even though the Kurds say the Iraqi constitution does not forbid a referendum on statehood, there is still a regional war going on against the Islamic State. It's a chaotic moment to be talking about redrawing national borders.

Even still, the reaction from Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran to an expression of Kurdish self determination has been extreme.

Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been waging a brutal war against his own Kurdish population, said Monday that military options were on the table in response to the vote. He is promising to cut off an oil pipeline that runs from the Kurdish Iraqi provinces into Turkey. 

Not to be outdone, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is threatening to "impose Iraqi rule" on the Kurdish provinces unless the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government cancels the results of the independence referendum. In practice "Iraqi rule" looks like it will mean closing the airspace of the Kurdistan region, which has enjoyed federal autonomy since Iraq's liberation in 2003.

Iraq's parliament, meanwhile, has given Abadi the authority to order the army to the disputed city of Kirkuk, which has been secured by Kurdish militias since the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of an Islamic State assault in 2014.

Then there is Iran, whose government has enabled and assisted the Syrian dictator's mass murder of his country's citizens since 2011. The Iranians have closed the land border with the Iraqi Kurdish region, threatened to end all flights and accused Iraq’s Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, of being a pawn of Israel (the only state in the region to endorse Kurdish statehood). 

In other words, the Kurdish referendum this week has the ingredients for a full-blown crisis. So it's time for a little American leadership.

U.S. officials tell me that Washington has urged Ankara and Baghdad to calm tensions. But this is a message delivered at the ambassador level in those capitals. That won't do.

It's time for messages from a higher level. President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or Secretary of Defense James Mattis could exercise some leverage -- not only to protect their Kurdish allies, but also to stabilize the region.

In public, the message should be that it's unacceptable to constrict the Kurdish region's economy by shutting down all of its borders and grounding all air travel to and from its regional capital. In private, the message should be tougher. Either Trump, Tillerson or Mattis should threaten to cut military and economic aid to Iraq and Turkey if they continue down a path toward war. There's no point in threatening the Iranians over this; they are and will remain rogues.

The U.S. has some credibility with Iraq and Turkey on this issue. It publicly urged the Kurds not to go forward with the referendum. But now that the referendum has happened, it's important to take a step back. This is not a declaration of independence. This vote begins a process of negotiating a separation, something Kurdish regional leaders have said they very much desire. That's not politically feasible at the moment for Abadi, who will stand for election next year. At the same time, he can delay the negotiations without waging a civil war. That's the message his American allies need to send to him.

The stakes are high. As Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Washington representative of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government, told me Wednesday: "The threats don't work against Kurds, and it's much better to engage in dialogue with us now." She added: "Baghdad and Erbil still need to cooperate against ISIS and the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. All we've done is hold a referendum. We have not unilaterally declared independence."

The Iraqis, Iranians and Turks have chosen to ignore this important fact and treat a democratic vote among Kurds as a de facto declaration of independence. It's a dangerous overreaction. America needs to persuade its allies to simmer down.

(Corrects characterization of Iraqi constitution in first paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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