How to Defuse the Iraqi Kurdish Crisis

Iraqi Kurds at a sports hall that was used as a voting centre in Erbil, Iraq, on Monday. Credit Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

After more than 25 years of autonomy from the government in Baghdad, Iraq’s Kurdish region reached a watershed on Monday when it voted on independence. The final results are still being tabulated, but according to the Kurdish authorities, more than 90 percent of people voted for secession in the nonbinding referendum.

Kurds are celebrating the result, which they see as an overdue reckoning and potentially a step toward their longstanding dreams of statehood, but few other parties are pleased. The question now is what will come next. Domestic and foreign opposition to the referendum threaten to escalate tensions, and pressure is mounting on the federal government in Baghdad to find a way to defuse the situation and prevent the breakup of Iraq.

Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, has insisted that the referendum was not about setting the borders for a future Kurdish state or taking an immediate step toward independence. Instead, he said, it was a confirmation of the will of Iraqi Kurdish people to form their own state in the future.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq is already taking a tough line. He has insisted that the referendum was unconstitutional and made clear that his government would take measures to prevent the breakup of the country. It’s an important objective. A united Iraq is crucial right now, as the war against the Islamic State continues. Kurdish secession moves will destabilize Iraq even further.

Moreover, Mr. Abadi has good reason to be concerned about how the referendum was held. Voting took place not only in the autonomous Kurdish region, but also in what are termed the disputed areas — areas that are officially in federal Iraq but have come under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government and its pesh merga troops. The vote also took place in Kirkuk, a city whose status is still undecided according to the Iraqi Constitution. Baghdad rightly looks at this as an attempt by the Kurds to establish facts on the ground for a land grab for a future Kurdish state.

The Iraqi federal government was hardly alone in opposing the referendum. The United States may be an ally of the Kurdish government, but Washington believed the independence vote shouldn’t have been held before the Islamic State is defeated. On Monday, the State Department said the United States was “deeply disappointed” with the Kurdish government. The United Nations likewise voiced concerns about the “potentially destabilizing effects” of the referendum.

But the most vociferous critics have been Turkey and Iran, both of which have Kurdish secessionist movements that they fear could be encouraged by the vote. Turkey has said it may close its border with the Kurdish region, while Iran prevented flights into and out of the Kurdish region from using its airspace. Both countries have threatened military action if the Kurdish region secedes from Iraq, and to make the threat clear, both countries held military exercises near the border.

Outside intervention isn’t the only potential trigger for escalation. Iraq’s Parliament has demanded that Mr. Abadi mobilize troops to secure Kirkuk and the disputed areas in response to the referendum. While he made clear that federal forces will not be used against the Kurdish region, he has asked the military to be “prepared to protect Kurdish citizens.” Several factions of the largely Shiite paramilitary groups known as the Popular Mobilization Forces are seeking to push back Kurdish control. They are now positioned close to the disputed areas and have vowed to prevent secession and to bring Kirkuk back under federal control — which could easily lead to fighting with the pesh merga.

Mr. Abadi now has a tough job. He must keep Iraq whole and reassure Turkey and Iran enough that they do not intervene. At the same time, he should not punish the millions of Kurdish Iraqis who want to express their aspiration for self-determination. This is why moving forward, Mr. Abadi and the government in Baghdad must figure out how to differentiate between the actions of Kurdish politicians and the generations-long collective emotional wishes of the Kurdish people.

If Baghdad works with its neighbors it can rebalance the relationship between the federal government and the Kurdish government and maintain peaceful control of the situation while leaving citizens in the Kurdish region unaffected. Control of oil exports through Turkey by the Kurdish government, long viewed as illegal by Baghdad, can be returned to the Iraqi government, as Turkey has hinted at. This would essentially freeze the finances of the regional government and force it to go back to Baghdad for funding.

On Tuesday, the Iraqi cabinet ordered the Kurdish government to return control of Iraqi borders with Iran and Turkey, and airports by 6 p.m. Friday; if the Kurds refuse, the federal government says it will shut down Kurdish airspace. Turkey and Iran both appear eager to enforce that demand and Iraqi troops are already taking part in maneuvers on the Turkish side of the border.

These measures will pressure the Kurdish leadership to agree to some of Baghdad’s terms, including the withdrawal of Kurdish forces to within official regional borders and returning to Baghdad oil fields seized starting in 2003.

Such measures would satisfy pressure on the Iraqi federal government from its Arab and non-Kurdish communities to check Kurdish expansionism and also help pacify Turkish and Iranian worries about instability. But they will not answer the longer-term questions about Iraqi Kurdish aspirations for independence or the fate of Kirkuk.

These questions will need to be answered through tough negotiations between Baghdad and the Kurdish government and the solutions carried out in a way that has a legal basis in Iraq’s Constitution. Before then, the partnership between Baghdad and Erbil, backed by the international coalition, which has led to the near complete defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq, should continue to be the focus for both sides.

Other countries, in particular the United States, can also play a positive role. By supporting Baghdad’s efforts to prevent conflict and by encouraging the Kurdish government to be more flexible in its dealing with the federal government, the United States and others can bring the two sides together. This would avoid giving too great a role for Turkey and Iran, who are more concerned about their own interests than Iraq’s future. This may be the only way to reach a peaceful resolution to a tense situation in a region that is not short on violence.

Sajad Jiyad is the managing director of the Bayan Center for Planning and Studies.

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