Ever since the Kurds voted for independence in a non-binding referendum this week, nearly everyone has been on edge. As we discussed a few days ago, nearly all of their neighbors (including Iraq) are lined up in opposition to the idea of an independent Kurdish nation, with Turkey already threatening to bring their army across the border and invade. The big question mark was going to be the United States response. We owe a lot to the Kurds for their unflagging support in the war against ISIS and their help during the initial ouster of Saddam Hussein. We have some of our own troops advising and arming them in the eastern portions of Syria.

But even for all that, the official U.S. position is that the most productive course of action would to allow the Kurdish Autonomous Region to maintain the relative level of independence they now unofficially enjoy while still remaining part of Iraq. The Secretary of State seemed to settle the question yesterday by reaffirming that policy. (Reuters)

The United States does not recognize the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and urges an end to “threats of reciprocal actions,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement on Friday.

“The United States does not recognize the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unilateral referendum held on Monday. The vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” Tillerson said.

That will likely come as a disappointment, though probably not a surprise to the Kurdish leaders. Their anticipated bid to declare their independence would have looked like a much stronger play with the U.S. behind them. But they surely must realize that this would put America in an incredibly difficult position, facing opposition not only from our traditional adversaries in the region (Iran and Syria) but even our allies, ostensibly Iraq and Turkey. In fact, aside from Israel, it’s tough to find anyone else on the planet that wants to see this bid move forward.

Iraq’s response is growing increasingly belligerent. The government there is now threatening to bar international flights to and from the major airport in the Kurdish region and possibly send troops to take over the northern border stations which the Kurds currently operate. (Washington Post)

The rift between the Iraqi government and Kurdish leaders vying for independence grew wider Friday, with Baghdad imposing a ban on international flights to airports operated by the Kurds.

The ban was the first major step taken by Iraq’s central government to express its outrage over a referendum Monday on independence. Nearly 93 percent of voters in the Kurdistan region approved taking steps toward declaring an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

Baghdad has further threatened to close land borders between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq and to send troops into the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, heightening concerns in Washington and regional capitals of a fresh wave of armed conflict in an already combustible country battling the Islamic State.

While this looks like a disaster in the making (and to be sure, it has that potential), there’s still room for a bit of diplomacy to toss some cold water on the situation. It’s conceivable that the Kurds could use the results of the plebiscite as a bargaining chip to gain both additional concessions from Baghdad in terms of autonomy and control of their oil fields as well as protection from potential hostile action by Iran or Turkey. As long as they remain officially part of Iraq, the government in Baghdad will have to protect them and they can remain sure of support from the United States.

Let’s hope that’s where this is heading. A flat declaration of independence will almost undoubtedly result in war, and that would be a war that America really couldn’t afford to take sides in militarily. In reality, the Kurds have a tremendous amount to lose and not all that much to gain given the amount of relative independence they already enjoy.