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Who’s Afraid of an Independent Kurdistan?


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Andrew Bernard

Sept. 26 2017


At long last, Iraq’s Kurdistan Region (KR) has held its independence referendum. The votes will be counted for the next few days, but pre-referendum predictions and the initial results point to a strong “yes” vote. In a sense, the decision to go forward with the referendum remains more provocative than whatever the final vote count may be. It won’t exactly be a surprise if 70, 80, or 90% of Iraq’s Kurds (not to mention the non-Kurdish residents of the KR) vote for independence after enjoying more than two decades of near-total autonomy and three years of fending for themselves against ISIS.

The vote itself won’t immediately trigger secession, but will instead prompt independence talks between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government in Baghdad. But the neighbors of a potential Kurdistan have already started making threats about the consequences the new state would face. As the Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency reports:



Iran, for its part, has closed its airspace to flights bound for the KR at Baghdad’s request and is holding war games along the border. The Turks have stated that the border crossing has not been closed, but the obvious implication that cross-border traffic could be closed was made explicit by the ever-colorful Turkish President Erdogan. Hurriyet Daily:




While Americans might feel warm and fuzzy about the creation of a new, pro-America, pro-Israel, democratic and largely secular state in the Middle East, the uncomfortable truth is that the U.S. has been well served by a status quo that after the referendum will be extremely difficult to maintain. The U.S. has plenty of leverage over the Iraqi Kurds—it could withdraw funding and support for the Peshmerga, or close U.S. military bases—but that leverage doesn’t mean much if the U.S. is unwilling to use it.

Instead, with the KRG in the drivers seat, U.S. “mediation” will be of questionable value. If the U.S. isn’t going to stop the push for Kurdish independence, then it will need to both deal with the consequences as well as recognize that there is a risk of serious military conflict both in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. If the U.S. wants to delay Kurdish independence or maintain the status quo, it’s going to have to start throwing a lot more weight into the issue.

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