Things are getting tense as Kurdistan is between Iraq and a hard place

Neither the U.S., nor a single state bordering the Kurdish region, recognizes the legitimacy of its independence referendum results.

The Kurds of Iraq voted in a referendum on support for independence that has stirred fears of instability across the region, as the war against the Islamic State group winds down. CREDIT: Bram Janssen/AP Photo
The Kurds of Iraq voted in a referendum on support for independence that has stirred fears of instability across the region, as the war against the Islamic State group winds down. CREDIT: Bram Janssen/AP Photo

The Kurdish Regional Government is getting squeezed from all sides after the September 25 referendum pursuing formalized independence from Iraq passed with overwhelming majority. On Friday, Baghdad blocked all international flights into the Kurdish region’s two international airports and is sending troops to the borders of the Kurdish region, which sits in northern Iraq.

Although the it found a powerful ally in the Kurdish Peshmerga forces the fight against ISIS in Iraq, the United States went from hoping Barzani would simply delay the referendum to flat-out saying “the results lack legitimacy.” In a statement released on Friday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said:

We urge calm and an end to vocal recriminations and threats of reciprocal actions. We urge Iraqi Kurdish authorities to respect the constitutionally-mandated role of the central government and we call upon the central government to reject threats or even allusion to possible use of force. The United States asks all parties, including Iraq’s neighbors, to reject unilateral actions and the use of force.

If Tillerson’s language seems blunt, it’s nothing compared to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, speaking at a political rally on Saturday, accused the Kurds of “opening a wound in the region to twist the knife in.” He added the KRG would “pay the price” for going through with the referendum.


The U.S. has essentially couched its concerns within the context of the war against ISIS, which has demanded coordination between the United States, the Peshmerga Iraqi troops, as well as the Hashd al-Shaabi, a predominantly Shia militia. Experts have said the fight is a domestic one.

The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, up for reelection in spring 2018, has been signalling for weeks that it will not recognize the legitimacy of the vote or any move by the KRG and its president, Masoud Barzani, to formally separate from Iraq and take disputed regions, such as oil-rich Kirkuk, with it. If al-Abadi alienates the Kurds, he won’t get their crucial bloc of seats in the parliament — and he needs those to stay in office.

Baghdad has a lot of allies. On Friday, Reuters reported that Iraq, working with Turkey and Iran, plans to “take control” of borders surrounding the Kurdish region. The KRG, meanwhile, is refusing to hand over control of border posts to Baghdad.

Iran and Turkey, each nervous that a successful secession would trigger a similar movement in Kurdish minorities in their own borders, have moved from voicing opposition to the referendum to imposing oil embargoes and executing war games at the Kurdish border. There are fears of a border blockade by Iran and Turkey, which would devastate an already economically struggling KRG, where public-sector employees have been only sporadically paid as the region strains to deal with the massive influx of displaced people from military operations in Mosul and Tal Afar.


Syria, which also borders the Kurdish region, has also said that it does not recognize the legitimacy of the referendum. 

The response from the KRG has been quite muted as it calculates its next move.

The day after the referendum, Kurdish President Bernard-Henri Levy sat with Barzani for a piece for Kurdish news site Rudaw, in which he mused about his people’s long struggle for independence. When asked about the potential threats posed by Iraq and Turkey, he referenced a 1988 incident when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurdish village of Halabja.

“Suppose our neighbors follow through with their unreasonable plans. Will the international community stand by and watch us be strangled?” he said. “Will they just take in the show, as they did when we were gassed?”