Middle East

How the U.S. Can Quell the Kurdish Crisis

There is still time to keep Iraq from breaking apart, but Washington cannot wait to be asked to mediate.

Have patience.

Photographer: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

More than 90 percent of Iraq's Kurds voted to declare independence last week, bringing tensions to an even higher boil across the Middle East. The regional governments that opposed the referendum -- Turkey, Iran and the Iraqi government in Baghdad -- are intent on punishing the Kurds, already beginning economic measures and even threatening a military response.

The U.S., which also vigorously opposed the referendum, must resist the urge to pile on. Rather, Washington should shift its policy away from combating a Kurdish challenge to the unity of Iraq to a more neutral, less outcome-oriented stance.

The U.S. is understandably frustrated that the Kurdistan Regional Government went ahead with the vote at this precarious time, with a fragile and fractious central government and the ongoing need to battle the Islamic State. But now Washington must be prepared to do more than simply indicate that, "if asked," it will facilitate dialogue between the Kurds and Baghdad. Instead, it needs to ramp up intensive efforts to reconcile the Iraqi factions and moderate the actions of Turkey, in particular, as regional actors work to coordinate their strategy and intensify economic pressure on the KRG.

Several factors suggest the need for a more active stance than the one Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert have articulated in the last few days. While it's true that the referendum is a major distraction from more pressing goals in Iraq and the region, the U.S., Baghdad and Iraq’s neighbors could well be blowing the vote out of proportion. The referendum, while audacious on the part of the KRG, did not tell the world anything it did not already know. Even a casual observer could predict that the results would be overwhelming in favor for independence.

Moreover, as Kurdish officials have repeatedly said, the purpose of the vote was not to declare independence, but to provide a mandate to Kurdish leaders to engage in negotiations to secure what they hoped would be a “velvet divorce” along the lines that occurred between the now Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

Given these important details, Washington and others might have taken another approach -- viewing the referendum as an internal Kurdish affair and not seeing its results as changing the landscape in any important way. Kurdish leaders, of course, made this option more difficult by including “disputed areas” -- those outside of the official boundaries of the KRG, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk -- in the vote.

But now that the vote has occurred, the furor surrounding it threatens important U.S. priorities. The way in which this rift compromises efforts to crush the Islamic State is self-evident, given that Kurds -- both those in Iraq and Syria -- have been a critical ally. With international flights to the region now suspended by Baghdad, the Kurdish economy will begin to feel the effects of its neighbors’ wrath. This pain will be vastly increased if Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi gets Turkey to start paying Baghdad rather than the Kurds for oil it imports from the Kurdish areas -- and could impinge on Kurdish willingness and ability to hold the front line against the Islamic State in some areas.  

Emotions and nationalist feelings are now running very high in Iraq, and Abadi is under enormous pressure to take a very tough stance against the Kurds. To do otherwise could severely damage his prospects in the Iraqi general election scheduled for April 2018. Abadi is much more likely than any of his challengers to deal with the Kurds fairly (and, not coincidentally, to allow for the continued deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq). Given that the Kurds will not declare the referendum void, helping Abadi manage this situation in a way that does not either lead to violence or completely gut his electoral prospects should be the highest American priority. If he loses the vote, Iran will be the winner, as most other prospective prime ministers are much closer to Tehran.

The U.S. should also ramp up efforts to defuse the crisis because it is only through negotiations, no matter how unlikely they seem now, that Washington has any hope of securing its preferred outcome: a unified Iraq. There are good reasons U.S. officials across different administrations have worked against the breakup of Iraq. There are legitimate fears about what an independent Kurdistan spawned from northern Iraq would mean for regional stability, given the large Kurdish populations in Turkey, Iran and Syria. An independent Kurdistan would be a major strand pulled in the already fraying fabric of the 100-plus year old Sykes-Picot Agreement that established the boundaries of the modern Middle East.

The U.S. also understands that the chances of keeping Iraq from becoming a failed nation are increased by the presence of the Kurds remaining inside the country. They are the most moderate, pro-American group in Iraq, with the most developed government institutions and longest experience with democracy. Throughout many tough moments in the last 15 years, the Kurds have been a strong ally -- be it in fighting Saddam Hussein and the Islamic State, or in the effort to build institutions in the fledgling state. An Iraq bereft of Kurdistan is likely to be more vulnerable to Iranian coercion, would have a much stronger Islamist strain to its governance, and could also trigger other regions of Iraq to contemplate their own secessions.

It may be too late to keep Iraq as a unified country. The Kurds suffered genocide and other atrocities under Saddam, and are understandably worried about being in any position that gives Baghdad control over their destiny. And they are not wrong in their assessment that, today, the country is not the “democratic, pluralistic, and federal” place they agreed to be part of. The long-held, long-thwarted dream of independence is compelling when the alternative seems to be being tied to a dysfunctional state ambivalent about the role of minorities.

That said, it is conceivable that some regional and economic realities will convince Kurdish leaders that a different kind of outcome -- perhaps a looser confederation between Arab Iraq and Kurdistan -- will meet their interests better than an independent Kurdish nation. In the wake of the referendum, Kurdish leaders are of course pushing for talks about the terms of independence. But this is likely their maximalist position -- and they may be open to other arrangements, especially in the interim, if a reasonable process with international guarantees gets underway.

Washington and its Western allies would be wrong to think that they can simply cow the Kurds into backtracking on their ambitions. Likewise, more pressure and threats from their neighbors are likely not to move Kurds to a position of submission, but to a more immediate declaration of independence -- and all the risks to stability that would entail.  The U.S. can't wait to be asked to get involved, but should lean forward and convince Baghdad and Turkey that more is to be gained through de-escalation and dialogue than through threats and punishment.

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:
    Meghan L. O'Sullivan at Meghan_OSullivan@hks.harvard.edu

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

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