The independence referendum held in Iraqi Kurdistan by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was a "foolish move" that threatens relations between neighboring countries, James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Ankara, said.
"The referendum was a spectacularly foolish move that poses real dangers for Ankara, Baghdad and even Iran, although it will attempt to exploit the situation," Jeffrey, who was the U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010 and is now with the Washington Institute, told Daily Sabah.
KRG President Masoud Barzani continued with the planned independence referendum on Sept. 25, despite widespread controversy and criticism from regional powers, including Turkey, Iran, Iraqi, the U.S., U.K. and EU.
Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also said that both Syria and Iraq's territorial integrity must be protected for regional stability.
Although Ankara and Irbil's ties benefited from strong political and economic engagement before the referendum, Barzani's decision to continue on the path to independence has irked the Turkish leadership, which has threatened to impose a series of economic, political, commercial and security measures on Irbil. Responding to Ankara's moves, the KRG has called for dialogue with Ankara, referencing historical ties.
The strained relations with Irbil have also positively shifted the tone between Ankara and Baghdad, as they both see the KRG's separation from Iraq as illegitimate, unconstitutional and a threat to both countries national security. Currently, diplomatic dialogue is being carried out by Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran concerning the next steps now that the referendum has passed. Erdoğan will also visit Tehran on Oct. 4, where he is expected to discuss the issue.
U.S. and EU leaders have said the focus should be honed on the fight against Daesh, arguing that an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq would compromise the stability the country's unity and bring further chaos and conflict to a region already reeling from instability, civil war and political turmoil. The only country that supported the KRG independence vote was Israel.
Thursday, Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against Daesh, said the focus on the counter-Daesh campaign has lessened since the Sept. 25 vote.
"The focus, which used to be like a laser beam on ISIS is now not 100 percent there, so there has been an effect on the overall mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq as a result of the referendum," he said, using another acronym for Daesh. The spokesman added, however, that there had been no impact on current military operations out of Irbil's airport.
Commenting on the referendum's implications for the region, Jeffrey said: "Baghdad, the KRG, Turkey and the U.S. are allies in the struggle in the region against the PKK, ISIS and even more dangerous, Syria and Iran empowered by Russia. Baghdad has always been the weakest power in this coalition given Iranian influence and its inability – here Barzani is right as Turkey has often noted – to meet reasonable Iraqi Kurdish and Sunni Arab concerns.
"By this action, the KRG threatens relations among all of these actors, and thus the region is in full crisis," Jeffrey said, and suggested that the "next steps depend primarily on Turkish-U.S. joint action. Turkish anger is justified, but Turkey should not include cutting off oil from the KRG at this time. Turkey had other, less-dramatic sanctions, and such Turkish action would give away Ankara's best bargaining chip and could provoke Baghdad or Irbil to take even more dramatic steps.
"Only Turkey can truly pressure Kurdistan now, and only the U.S. can deal evenly with Baghdad and Irbil to keep Iraq united and not at war. Thus, the U.S. and Turkey should consult on what measures Turkey needs from Irbil to avoid the use of oil as a weapon, and the U.S. should press Kurds in that direction."
In the post-referendum period, the U.S. should "exercise maximum care to ensure nothing it does with the PYD [Democratic Union Party] or the YPG [People's Protection Units] on its own exacerbates the crisis, and the U.S. and Turkey should further expedite joint consultations on the future of Syria," he added.
In a recent interview with Reuters, Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington who retired from the U.S. foreign service in 2014 after serving as the U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014 and was the deputy U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2008 to 2010, said: "The Americans are the midwife of Iraqi Kurdistan."
Ford criticized the declining U.S. influence in the region: "The Kurds moving ahead [with the independence referendum] is a sign of American credibility being much less than it used to be."
Both the White House and the U.S. State Department issued statements calling for the KRG to halt the referendum ahead of the vote, but the Barzani administration decided to continue as planned.