After last week's referendum, tensions have escalated between Baghdad and Erbil. Only a set of careful next steps will avoid a potential future flashpoint, writes Hussein Ibish
Kurds need to combine diplomacy, strategy and persistence to advance their cause
Nothing about the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq ought to surprise anyone. Kurdish politicians were too busy scoring nationalistic points to postpone it, as would have been wise. The Kurds' neighbours - Iran, Iraq and Turkey - by recklessly and foolishly throwing their weight and bluster around in the run-up to the vote, ensured both a high turnout and an overwhelming "yes" result of more than 90 per cent, neither of which were by any means guaranteed a few weeks ago.
And Washington, which discouraged the referendum, has once again demonstrated that, these days, even its closest friends rarely heed its advice.
So, what now? Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani says a "long process" of negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad will soon commence about the terms of separation. Obviously, a dialogue between the Kurds and the Arabs of Iraq, as well as Turks, Iranians and others, is necessary and inevitable. Hopefully, it will be an exchange of words rather than bullets. But that’s hardly guaranteed.
The Kurds' antagonists are all being decidedly belligerent.
Not only are the Iraqis and Turks holding joint military exercises adjacent to Kurdish territories, but the Iranians are also conducting military manoeuvres of their own, also unmistakably aimed at intimidating Erbil.
Perhaps even more significantly, Baghdad has imposed what, thus far, appears to be a fairly effective air-traffic blockade against the Kurdish government.
Because Iraqi authorities legally control the airspace over the Kurdish territories, their demand that all international flights cease left most carriers with little choice but to suspend travel or face a wide range of unpalatable problems, including prohibitive insurance rates.
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It is unlikely Baghdad will have as much success with its demand that the Kurdistan Regional Government hand over control of its two international airports. But what use are runways if nobody will fly in and out of them?
These responses are all designed to remind the Kurds that not only are they surrounded by potential enemies, but their territory is also landlocked, and thus dependent on the minimal goodwill of at least one, if not all, of its immediate neighbours. Right now, they've managed to thoroughly alienate them all.
Moreover, a potential immediate flashpoint looms menacingly.
The otherwise idyllic town of Tuz Khurmatu, 90 kilometres south of the disputed city of Kirkuk, has been the scene of deep sectarian tensions in recent years. It is split between largely Shiite Turkmen and largely Sunni Arabs and Kurds, "protected" by sectarian Shiite militias on one side and Kurdish Peshmerga forces on the other.
If sectarian Shiite "Popular Mobilisation Forces", or even the Iraqi military, react violently to the Kurdish independence moves, it will probably begin in or near Tuz Khurmatu, but it will be hard to keep it there. If violence erupts and spreads, it could engender a more generalised conflagration.
And if things go badly for the Shiite militias, it's not hard to imagine Hizbollah, no longer as urgently needed in Syria as before, dispatching its own forces across yet another border in support of Iranian hegemony.
All this must be avoided in everyone’s interests.
Eventually, Kurds will undoubtedly achieve their statehood. But they can't do that if their neighbours, particularly the Arabs of Iraq and, most of all, Turkey, haven't yet been convinced of the benefits.
No one knows what Mr Barzani has in mind when he invokes a "long process". But if it's as long as it could, and probably should, be, then another obvious step towards eventual Kurdish statehood would be the development of a radically decentralised, extremely loose, confederated system within a nominally and formally united Iraq.
More on the Kurdish referendum in Opinion
In such a scenario, Kurds could negotiate virtually everything they would practically want out of statehood, but without some of the formal trappings, while also gaining time to get their deeply dysfunctional domestic political house in order and begin to lay the groundwork with the rest of Iraq, Iran and, especially, Turkey, for the next stage at some future date.
There are clear benefits to all the other parties as well, particularly since such a scenario avoids the bloody conflict that has accompanied almost all successful secession movements in recent decades, with the exception of Slovakia.
On September 22, the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, on Twitter recommended that Iraqis consider the "flexibility and functionality" of the Emirates' experience with a federal system.
Obviously, the arrangement in Iraq would look radically different from that in the UAE. But this suggestion offers not only a way out of a dangerous quagmire, but a serious, practical and wise path forward, for all parties, above all the Kurds in their morally unquestionable but still politically labyrinthine quest for eventual statehood.
De facto independence in a highly decentralised and federated, but nominally unified Iraq, wasn’t what the Kurds voted for last week. But it would be a strategically shrewd move towards their ultimate goal of de jure independence.
A Kurdish state won’t result from a referendum or by magic. It can only be the result of persistence, sharp diplomacy and wise strategy.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington