The United States Must Prevent Disaster in Kurdistan

You have to hand it to them. U.S. officials nailed it. Prior to the Sept. 25 independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, they couldn’t have been clearer in setting out the parade of horribles that might come to pass if the vote went ahead. Tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and its most powerful neighbors — Turkey, Iran, and Iraq — would dangerously escalate, officials warned in private conversations. Kurdish airspace could be shut down. Borders might be closed. Essential trade, including the oil pipeline to Turkey that accounts for the vast majority of the KRG’s revenues, could be threatened.

Worst of all, the risks of military clashes between the Kurds and their neighbors would increase as nationalist sentiment and posturing on all sides reached a fever pitch. Of special concern was the possibility that Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq could seek to gain political advantage by challenging Kurdish control in the oil-rich, ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk and other disputed territories also claimed by the central government in Baghdad.

In the referendum’s aftermath, which saw Kurds vote overwhelmingly in favor of independence, virtually all of these threats have, unfortunately, begun to materialize. It has to be said that Kurdish officials and U.S. analysts who downplayed the referendum’s likely consequences largely missed the mark. Private assurances that the day after the referendum would look much like the day before — that Iraqi, Turkish, and Iranian leaders might feel compelled to whine a bit for domestic consumption, but would end up doing pretty much nothing while adjusting to Kurdistan’s new reality — look, at the very least, overly optimistic.

Instead, a genuine crisis has erupted. Even a brief sampling of the regional reaction is deeply troubling. Iraq ordered Kurdish airspace closed to international civilian traffic. Foreign air carriers have unanimously complied. In apparent coordination with its…

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