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Kurdistan’s vote for independence may be a step too far

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The Kurds voted for independence on Sept. 25, a step that could serve to further isolate them in the Middle East and estrange them from their only serious ally, the United States.

The Kurds were the target of pressure to cancel the referendum by parties near and far in the run-up to the independence referendum. The U.S. and United Nations offered support for a one-year dialogue with Baghdad to address contentions between the capitals, but to no avail. The U.S. then showed its warnings weren’t just for show when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, “The vote and the results lack legitimacy.”

The Kurds are now on a journey that will further roil the region and illuminate the limits of U.S. support for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the family enterprise of KRG President Masoud Barzani. And the Middle East will be interested in Barzani’s feelings about “me too” independence referenda by Christians, Turkmen, and Yazidis living in traditional Kurdistan or the areas the Kurds are claiming near oil-rich Kirkuk.

{mosads}Kurdistan is proffered as a land of moderate Islam, rights for women, and democracy. If Kurdistan is really all that, it can be a transformative force inside a federal Iraq where it can lead by example. But it isn’t all that, as the statelet suffers from the regional woes of authoritarianism, corruption, nepotism, and misogyny, despite the snaps of cute Kurdish girls with machine guns, most of whom are really Syrian.


Aside from being a bad idea on its merits, the referendum is a victim of bad timing, at the back end of America’s two-decade enterprise in Iraq. The U.S. put too much stock in the WMD claims of Ahmed Chalabi, so is rightly wary of another local politician with a corruption problem who claims to be its best friend. The U.S. paid for Iraq’s liberation with almost 5,000 dead and $2.4 trillion dollars, and isn’t about to let the dreams of a client sunder Iraq and obliterate the justification of the effort.

After the referendum, Baghdad acted predictably and legitimately by closing the airspace in Kurdistan, demanding control of Kurdistan’s border posts, and directing the two mobile phone companies headquartered in Erbil to move to Baghdad. A likely next step will be to require all visitors to Kurdistan to secure Iraqi, not Kurdish, visas, a longer, more expensive, more intrusive process. No businesses will challenge Baghdad, capital will go elsewhere, and Kurdistan’s economy will languish as foreign investors wait for the locals to resolve the dispute. 

Kurdistan’s oil and gas has been the financial oxygen for the KRG, and Turkey hasn’t yet decided to “close the valves” and halt the 700,000 barrel per day flow from Kurdistan to the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, in order to give Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan future leverage, and because Erdogan can use the revenue to support his political allies. But Kurdistan’s options are dwindling, as Baghdad announced it will re-open the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline that bypasses Kurdistan, and Russia and Turkey have agreed on a pipeline and nuclear power plant deal that may reduce the need for Kurdish oil and gas.

The action has moved past the talking stage. Iraqi troops claim to have seized the airfield and oil facilities near Kirkuk and are now on the outskirts of the city. Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani has arrived in Kurdistan for crisis talks, a sure sign Iran is buckling down after their earlier call for negotiations was rebuffed. The immediate goal for the U.S. troops in Iraq is to avoid being drawn into the intramural scrap while trying to destroy the remaining Islamic States forces, while American diplomats highlight the limits of American support for Kurdish independence. 

America’s interest is in maintaining the region’s existing borders with a federal option that allows Kurdistan some autonomy within the larger Iraqi state, and avoiding accusations of using the Kurds to dismember Iran, Iraq, Syria, and NATO ally Turkey. Dismemberment will rebound to the detriment of the Kurds as they will be seen as America’s agents of destruction, with a patron not inclined to send troops once the Arabs and Persians turn against them.

If the U.S. decides the independence issue is best resolved by the slow squeeze of the Turkey-Iran-Iraq python, its attention can turn to Erbil’s public corruption and human rights abuses, a non-kinetic project that will also check Turkish and Iranian ambitions in the country while polling well in the U.S. and in Baghdad.

President Barzani has two options for Kurdistan’s future and his legacy: Arafat or Mandela? Which will he choose?

James D. Durso is the managing director at consultancy firm Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as supply officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).

Tags Iraqi Kurdistan James Durso Kirkuk Kurdistan Kurdistan Regional Government Kurds Masoud Barzani Rex Tillerson

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