ERBIL, Iraq — The world could be excused for thinking that another war was about to break out in Iraq.
After Iraq’s Kurds voted in favor of independence, they took to the streets, waving flags and honking horns, and loudly scoffing at Baghdad’s threats of military action. Iraq shut down international flights into the region and sent its gendarmes to the Kurdish borders, while its neighbors threatened economic and military intervention.
More than a week later, however, the Kurds have taken no steps to actually declare independence, and Baghdad and its allies have done nothing to make good on their threats of intehttps://youtu.be/syuxzLQbclErvention. The referendum on independence was a seminal moment in the Kurds’ long struggle for a homeland, but neither Baghdad nor the Kurds seem determined to force that moment to a crisis.
Kurdish oil is still flowing, despite threats by the Turks to shut down a vital pipeline; the Kurds’ pesh merga forces are still fighting alongside the American-led military coalition in Iraq, their borders are open, and the military maneuvers by Turkey and Iran have been viewed by all sides as little more than posturing. On Monday, Iran made a showy display of moving battle tanks to its vital Parvaz Khan border crossing into Kurdistan, but the border stayed open to civilian traffic all the same.
Baghdad’s most concrete action, the ban last Friday on international flights to and from Kurdistan’s international airports, was softened this week when Iraqi authorities announced they would allow air travel from Kurdistan to transit through Baghdad.
Though there are existential issues at stake — potentially an independent Kurdish state and the breakup of Iraq — both sides may have been acting provocatively at least in part out of domestic political considerations.
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For the Kurds, the timing of the referendum was seen by critics as an attempt by the Kurdish regional government’s leader, Masoud Barzani, to bolster his popularity domestically and deflect attention from the region’s economic problems.
For Baghdad, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s harsh reaction was seen as an attempt to placate Shiite hard-liners demanding a severe response to the Kurdish provocation.
Both leaders face elections in the coming months. Now, having made their points, both seem willing to back away from the precipice.
Mr. Abadi’s spokesman, Saad al-Hadithi, said in an interview Tuesday the Iraqi government had not carried out most of its threats yet to give the Kurds “every opportunity to step back from their position.”
“The government does not want to inflame the situation,” he said. “We believe they will back down.”
He insisted, however, that the government had a timetable for forcing the Kurds to surrender control of its borders and its oil income but he declined to provide details.
“We held this vote because we lost faith, we were fighting a rear-guard position for a lost country,” said Hoshyar Zebari, the former Iraqi foreign minister who was the architect of the Kurds’ referendum vote. “But it doesn’t follow automatically that we will declare a state the day after. The conditions and requirements of state-building are much harder than having a vote on the 25th of September. It will not happen overnight.”
The Kurds hoped the referendum would provide leverage to begin divorce negotiations with Baghdad. Although Mr. Abadi has refused, the Kurds have not given up hope that Baghdad will negotiate.
They are also dismissive of Baghdad’s threat to subjugate the Kurdish region by force.
“Military intervention, it’s not going to happen,” said Vahal Ali, director of communications in Mr. Barzani’s office. “Because first and foremost they don’t have the military strength.”
In addition, the Iraqis are preoccupied with the battle against the Islamic State, which still controls territory in Iraq, and for which they depend on cooperation from Kurdish military forces.
The reality is that neither side wants a military confrontation, said Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East specialist at the International Crisis Group.
“If things escalate, it will be because of a particular dynamic that evolves,” and not necessarily because Mr. Abadi wants it, Mr. Hiltermann wrote in an email. “I don’t think we’re even close to that point.”
Behind the scenes, Western diplomats have been working to tamp down anger on both sides, and maintain the alliance against the Islamic State. Diplomats have expressed optimism that the independence crisis won’t boil over into outright conflict — at least not yet.
One break in the standoff came from an unexpected source, a sermon last Friday by the influential Iranian Shiite leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Ayatollah Sistani firmly criticized the idea of an independent Kurdish state but at the same time called for dialogue and for Baghdad to respect the rights of Kurds.
“While Sistani has made it politically safe for Abadi to engage in a dialogue with Erbil, he has also set the secession of Iraqi Kurdistan as a red line that Baghdad cannot cross,” wrote Randa Slim, director of conflict resolution at the Middle East Institute in Washington. That statement gave hope to both sides, and defused some of the tension between them.
Turkey and Iran, who opposed moves toward Kurdish independence out of fear of arousing such moves among their own Kurdish minorities, have also failed to follow through on bellicose threats, including military exercises on the Kurdish border and economic isolation.
Turkey in particular wields the greatest threat to the deeply troubled Kurdish economy, the ability to shut off the Kurdish oil pipeline, which runs through Turkey and provides the single biggest source of revenue to the Kurdish Regional Government.
Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci told journalists over the weekend that it would be “business as usual.” In comments last week he described talk of an economic embargo as “dangerous rhetoric” and said any trade sanctions would hurt Turkey as much as the Iraqi Kurdish region.
“We’re talking about a $8-9 billion trade and the interests of Turkey,” he said.
The Kurds have long had a great deal of autonomy in their northern region, in what many viewed as de facto independence, running their own defense and foreign affairs, and exporting their own oil.
So far the independence crisis has not noticeably deepened the Kurdish economic crisis, except in industries catering to international visitors, such as hotels. Roza Mustafa, sales coordinator at the luxury Rotana Hotel in Erbil, said one of the company’s hotels, the Arjan Rotana, had only “one or two guests” in its 165 rooms, as a result of the travel ban.
Fears the referendum would lead to panic buying in a country heavily dependent on imports, and might even prompt runs on the banks, since Kurdistan has no central bank of its own and is part of the Iraqi financial and currency system, have not materialized.
At the Byblos Bank in Erbil, branch manager Lara Azamat said that only a few relatively small account holders were making withdrawals out of nervousness. “In 2013 during the ISIS advance many people were scared and they took their money out,” she said. “Now a few small accounts have, but the big ones are staying in.”
For now, at least, Kurdish leaders believe they can weather the storm.
“So far it’s within the limits of what we predicted,” Mr. Zebari said. “It is not risk-free but we are prepared for the consequences.”