U.S. Won’t Recognize Kurdish Independence Referendum
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement late last week stating that the United States would not recognize the independence referendum recently held by Iraqi Kurds in which pro-independence forces won an overwhelming victory:
BAGHDAD — The United States on Friday declared illegitimate Monday’s Kurdish referendum on independence, as the Iraqi government imposed a ban on international flights to airports operated by the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi troops prepared to seize the semiautonomous region’s border controls.
“The United States does not recognize the . . . unilateral referendum,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Washington’s first substantive statement on the vote, in which nearly 93 percent of voters in the Kurdistan region approved declaring an autonomous state in northern Iraq.
“The vote and the results lack legitimacy,” Tillerson said, “and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.” He urged both sides to reject the use of force and engage in dialogue, and to remain focused on the fight against the Islamic State, which he said was “not over.”
The flight ban was the first major step Baghdad has taken to express its outrage over the referendum. It has also threatened to close land borders between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq and to send troops into the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Iraqi soldiers are massing on the Iranian and Turkish borders with the Kurdish region, preparing to take control of the crossings from Kurdish authorities, according to a senior Iraqi official familiar with the plan. The Iraqi army chief of staff traveled to both countries this week to coordinate the move, the official said, which could begin as early as Saturday. Turkey and Iran, which have their own restive Kurdish populations, opposed the referendum, as did the United States.
The Iraqi military also temporarily closed a major road linking the Arab city of Mosul to the Kurdish city of Dahuk on Friday, cutting off a key route for basic goods between the two hubs.
Iraq’s government has said that all measures to isolate the Kurdish region would be temporary and reversed if the Kurds annulled the results of the vote, which Iraq’s Supreme Court deemed unconstitutional.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s tough reaction to the Kurdish ballot got a boost from the country’s highest Shiite religious authority, the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. In a sign of the growing anxiety in Iraq’s power centers over the vote, Sistani’s representative used his weekly Friday sermon to criticize the referendum as destabilizing, arguing that it invites international meddling in Iraq’s affairs.
“I call on the government to consider the Kurds’ constitutional rights in their measures,” Sistani’s representative said, sounding a conciliatory tone. At the same time, he rejected any challenge to Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
This announcement by the Secretary of State is hardly a surprise given the fact that the United States had been urging Iraqi Kurds to not go forward with the vote for months before it actually took place. Additionally, the referendum is not recognized by any major power in the Middle East, or even by nearly any nation on Earth or in the United Nations. To date, only three nations — South Sudan, East Timor, and Montenegro, all of which were formed over the past twenty years out of parts of other nations — have recognized the referendum as legitimate and the results of the vote have managed to unite Iraq, Turkey, and Iran in opposition. Each of these nations, of course, has their own restive Kurdish populations that has been a thorn in their sides for decades, with Turkey dealing with perhaps the biggest problem in that regard in the form of radicalized groups in Turkish Kurdistan that have been committing acts of terror spreading back into at least the 1980s. Without any international recognition, and given the fact that their referendum has served to unite all three nations with major Kurdish populations, it’s difficult to see how Iraqis Kurds will be able to make good on their bid for independence from Baghdad, must less any plan to unite with Kurds in other parts of the region to create a viable state.
This announcement came in the same week that Iraq and its neighbors announced a new series of crackdowns designed to tighten the economic and political noose around the territory claimed by Iraqi Kurds in an effort to get them to back down. The Iraqi central government in Baghdad, for example, has halted all international travel to the airports controlled by Kurdish forces, although domestic flights from other parts of the country are still allowed to travel to the region. Additionally, Baghdad is massing troops near the Kurdish borders and threatening to impose a land blockade on the region that could end up prompting clashes between the central government and the restive Kurds at the same time that both parties are essentially allied in a fight against ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. Turkey, meanwhile, is threatening to bring troops over the border in order to assist the Iraqis in controlling the situation and to cut off the movement of oil from Iraqi Kurdistan through pipelines that cross into Turkish territory, a move that would deprive the Kurds of a significant source of income. Additionally, Iraqi and Turkish military forces have conducted joint military exercises in the area surrounding the Kurdish region of Iraq in what is obviously a show of strength meant to send a message to Kurdish leaders and civilians that pursuing this independence bid would be unwise and could have serious consequences.
Where things head from here depends largely on how the respective parties act. If the Kurds try to push ahead with independence then it’s likely that the central government in Baghdad will have no choice but to act to stop them in order to maintain the territorial integrity of Iraq itself. Additionally, such moves would likely cause Iraq, Turkey, and Iran to become even more united in their opposition to Kurdish independence, and for the latter two nations to crack down on their own Kurdish populations in order to quell the possibility that the moves by Iraqi Kurds could cause their populations to make similar bids for independence. The worst of all possible worlds, of course, would be military clashes between the Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces, who have proven themselves in battle in the war against ISIS. Such an event would threaten to bring both Turkey and Iran into the fight, and it would also threaten to return Iraq itself to the chaotic state that ISIS was able to capitalize when it first began making territorial gains in Iraq itself. Hopefully, it won’t come to that but given recent history in Iraq it does seem like the worst possible outcome is typically what ends up happening there. That would be a problem for Iraq, the region, and for the United States.