Key Points

Ultimately, a redefined American relationship with any Kurdish polity will mean a redefined U.S. relationship with Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey: in other words, with the entire region. In each theater, policymakers will have to assess the costs and risks they are willing to bear and determine what, if any, U.S. interests are at stake. But before these challenges can even be framed in the public discourse, policymakers and pundits must start an honest conversation about the Kurds that transcends the ISIS vs. Kurds narrative. They must acknowledge the complex history of the Kurdish movement and consider both the plight of the Kurdish people and the level of U.S. commitment to the Middle East’s existing state system. That’s a tall order but the only one befitting the world’s sole superpower.

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Despite the recent rapprochement, a full Turko-Iranian alignment will not be easy. The mutually shared threat of Kurdish independence has, in the past, failed to unite Turkey and Iran. The two neighbors pursue opposing policies in the region and back different proxies, including Kurdish ones. Both states harbor deep suspicions about each other’s Kurdish ties and have long competed over influence within the KRG. Still, the KRG’s quest for independence presents a key opportunity for Tehran to further entice a drifting Ankara into its orbit. The recent series of military and diplomatic overtures are a testament to Iran’s steadfast intention to worsen the divide between Turkey and the West.

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The urgent task confronting Washington is to short-circuit the dangerous escalatory dynamic now at work before it gets further out of hand. A high-level diplomatic initiative backed by the world’s major powers could give the parties the excuse they need to pause, back away from the brink, and begin exploring options on how to move past the immediate crisis triggered by the referendum. Substantive solutions may not be immediately available, but the process itself, imbued with sufficient outside support from Washington and other great-power capitals, could buy valuable time and space to calm the waters, begin the search for workable compromises, and at very least keep the very worst from happening.

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Growing anti-Kurdish and anti-Semitic vitriol by Turkish officials and the public puts Turkey on a dangerous path at home and abroad. One opposition lawmaker already warned that the country’s “climate of hate” could lead to hate crimes targeting minorities. In addition, Ankara risks not only antagonizing Kurds on both sides of the Iraqi-Turkish border, but also the possibility of mending relations with Israel.

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