There are plenty of purple fingers all over the northern region of Iraq again today. At the time of this writing, the Kurds in that region are concluding a non-binding referendum on the question of independence from Baghdad and the formal creation of an independent Kurdistan from what’s now known as the Kurdish autonomous region. (That region is seven hours ahead of east coast time in the U.S.) But even a non-binding vote is causing trouble on both sides of the border. (ABC News)
Millions are expected to vote on Monday across the three provinces that make up the Kurdish autonomous region, as well as residents in disputed territories — areas claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
The vote is being carried out despite mounting regional opposition to the move. The United States has warned the vote will likely destabilize the region amid the fight with the Islamic State group.
Baghdad has also come out strongly against the referendum, demanding on Sunday that all airports and borders crossings in the Kurdish region be handed back to federal government control.
The Kurdish region has been one of the big question marks hanging over Iraq ever since the U.S. led invasion more than a decade ago ousted Saddam Hussein. Iraq doesn’t want to see an independent Kurdistan (nor do they want to give up all the oil in and around Kirkuk). None of Iraq’s neighbors are happy about it either. The Kurds have historically been pretty much surrounded by enemies. But at the same time, they have been some of the most loyal allies that United States has, both in quelling tensions inside the country and fighting the scourge of ISIS with their legendarily rugged military force.
But the United States also has a vested interest in maintaining stability in the region so we’ve largely been hoping to keep kicking this can down the road. The U.S. has urged caution and diplomacy in settling the question of Kurdish independence, but it seems that their patience is wearing thin. And if that wasn’t enough, then there’s the problem of Turkey. In anticipation of the vote, Erdogan’s government has renewed a proclamation declaring that they have the right to cross the border and “militarily intervene” if any sort of “security threat” is present. And they obviously consider an independent Kurdistan a security threat. (Associated Press)
The Turkish parliament on Saturday renewed a bill allowing the military to intervene in Iraq and Syria if faced with national security threats — a move seen as a final warning to Iraqi Kurds to call off their Monday independence referendum.
The decree allows Turkey to send troops over its southern border if developments in Iraq or Syria are seen as national security threats. Turkish officials have repeatedly warned the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq to abandon its plans for independence.
Kurds are dispersed across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran and lack a nation state. Turkey itself has a large ethnic Kurdish population and is battling a Kurdish insurgency on its own territory that it calls separatist.
This is yet another disaster waiting to happen, as is the case with almost everything having to do with Turkey these days. If the Kurds cough up a Declaration of Independence they could be looking at in immediate invasion from the north, and Turkey has the largest military in the region. They will also be facing an enemy to the east in the form of Iran. To their west, the current Syrian government isn’t exactly a fan of Kurdish independence either, but their plate is a bit full at the moment. And the Kurds clearly shouldn’t expect any help from the south via their former partners in Iraq who are opposing the plan as well.
If Turkey comes over the border in force and there are no local allies, what is the United States going to do? The Kurds are our friends and we owe them a great deal, but to rush our troops to the border to defend them would essentially mean a proxy war with Turkey, and if you’ve been following news from the region you already know how complicated our relationship with them is. (And President Trump’s budding bromance with Erdogan wouldn’t make help for the Kurds any more likely, or so it appears.) The Kurds are incredibly tough and resilient, but I doubt they could survive a sustained, direct assault from that many enemies on their own.
I hope somebody in the State Department is on top of this situation and talking to all the parties involved. It seems to me that there still could be some sort of solution on the table which gives the Kurds even more autonomy and control of their natural resources and security, but still comes short of declaring formal independence. If the Kurds can’t be turned away from that course of action, it could be a bloody, ugly mess which we won’t be in a position to do much about. But after all the support the Kurds have lent us, we’ll come out of this looking horrible if we let them go under.