Turkey’s reaction against the independence referendum that will be held on September 25, 2017 in Kurdistan Regional Government of Northern Iraq is getting tougher day by day. Turkish President Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has toughened his rhetoric against Massoud Barzani government especially in the last two weeks and began to signal a military operation towards Erbil. In addition, Turkish press indicated that Ankara and Washington (United States) reached a consensus about the cancellation of the referendum in the last Donald Trump-Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meeting in New York. Turkey has always been officially defending the territorial integrity of Iraq and rejecting the idea of an independent Kurdistan. However, according to Kurdish sources, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mr. James Mattis recently mentioned that they ask for a delay instead of cancellation. This shows that there might not be hundred percent harmony between Washington and Ankara about Kurdish statehood. Except Israel, no country so far declared support for independent Kurdish state. Russia for instance officially rejects the idea of an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq, but at the same time Rosneft has been trying to make new energy agreements with Erbil without Baghdad’s involvement. This shows that Kurds still have a high prospect for an independent state of their own in the near future. Even Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says that although they are against independent Kurdistan, they respect Kurdish people’s decision. Only Turkey and Islamic Republic of Iran seem to challenge Kurdish independence with a very harsh tone, but it should be noted that these two countries are very influential in regional and Iraqi politics. While Turkey has a considerable support among Kurdish (within Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party-KDP) and Turkmen population, Iran enjoys high prestige and control over Iraqi Shiite population and some Kurdish groups such as Jalal Talabani’s PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). Iran is also influential on the ground with its Hashd al-Shaabi forces. Most recently, UN Security Council also warned Kurdish leadership for instability risks following the referendum. Most recently, Turkey published a harsh warning against Erbil government after the National Security Council meeting and Turkish Parliament has renewed military memorandum for Iraq and Syria. However, Massoud Barzani seems confident about his decision and repeats that they could not cancel or delay the referendum. In this paper, I am going to analyze Turkey’s options about Kurdish referendum and possible consequences.
Although Turkey strongly rejects the idea of an independent Kurdish state, in fact, Turkish foreign policy before and after the Second Gulf War (Iraqi War) prepared necessary conditions for the birth of a Kurdish state. By rejecting the military memorandum on March 1, 2003, Turkey declined its chance to get more involved into Iraqi Kurdish politics and Kurds have become a more trustable actor in the eyes of Americans. Of course, the negative legacy of the First Gulf War (500.000 Kurdish refugees and economic burdens) and peaceful attitude of Turkish people forced Turkish Parliament to make this decision. However, this meant decreasing power on the ground for Turkey and increasing status of Kurds in Washington. After the rejection of the military memorandum of 1 March, Turkish government did not also implement a plan proposed by Republican People’s Party (CHP) about militarily entering few kilometers into Northern Iraq soil with a “sanitary cordon” strategy in order to prevent PKK attacks and possible Kurdish mass migration. So, after the war, Kurds began to enjoy autonomy guaranteed by the new Iraqi constitution and Turkish government and firms began to establish close relations with Barzani government. Massoud Barzani became an influential political figure not only in Iraq, but also in Turkey as the anti-thesis of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan with his Islamic worldview, Naqshbandi ties and warm relations with Ankara. Barzani was even welcomed in ruling Justice and Development Party’s congress in 2012 with “Turkey is proud of you” chants. In return, Barzani encouraged Turkey’s Kurds to support presidential system and Erdoğan in the referendum that was made few months ago. Turkey made energy agreements with Erbil government without Baghdad’s involvement and supported the development of Kurdistan region. Turkish firms established new hotels and buildings in Erbil and turned Kurdistan Regional Government into a safer and more attractive place compared to other regions of Iraq. Thus, independence of Kurdistan should not be normally a shocking development for Ankara. I think increasing nationalism in domestic politics and the timing of the referendum forces Erdoğan and his government to act in this way.
There are few options for states in international crises. The first and most common strategy is of course diplomatic pressure. Turkey has been making a very influential diplomatic maneuver in the last two weeks and that is why international support for Kurdish statehood is still low. However, it might be too late for Turkish diplomatic efforts in preventing the referendum. Inconsistency between Turkish foreign policy in the last years and current Turkish stance is also a problem for diplomacy. Other countries and their diplomats might actually question Turkey’s energy agreements with Erbil regime instead of Baghdad and Barzani’s close involvement into Turkish politics.
Second option is to implement economic sanctions. Kurdistan Regional Government’s economy is strongly based on oil trade with Ankara and without Turkey’s help, Kurdish economy could not develop as the new country will be encircled by hostile Baghdad and Tehran regimes. So, economic sanctions against Erbil could be very influential and could force Barzani not to implement the result of the referendum without Ankara’s approval. This could also lead to economic problems in Northern Iraq and might reduce popular support for Barzani. However, economic sanctions could also decrease Turkey’s high prestige among Kurds not only in Kurdistan, but also in Turkey. In addition, economic sanctions might orientate Erbil government to get into closer relations with USA, Israel and other countries instead of Turkey.
Third option that is on the table is military operation. President Erdoğan openly signals a military intervention if Erbil regime will implement the decision of the referendum and declare the establishment of an independent Kurdish state without Turkey’s consent. This would be a very risky move since it will create security problems and it will accelerate the ethnic division within Turkey. Turkey has been hosting more Kurds than any other country in the world and breaking the hearts of Kurds with a military operation might negatively affect Turkey’s domestic politics as well. The ruling JDP could actually lose its widespread Kurdish support in the country. Kurdish originated JDP members and deputies already announced that they defend the independence of Kurdish state and this would be better for Turkey. This would also mean Turkey’s decreasing influence in Iraqi politics with the loss of Kurdish support. Moreover, due to last year’s failed coup attempt and purges made by the government aftermath, Turkish Armed Forces also seem to pass through a difficult period. That is why, this might not be the best time for such a military confrontation. The military operation will also bring the risks of international objections and pressures against Turkey. Although diplomats in Ankara always make reference to Ankara Agreement of 1926, Turkey’s guarantorship rights for Iraq is not clear and precise as in the case of Cyprus. In case of a bloody war in Northern Iraq, Turkey might face with serious criticism and even diplomatic isolation. But a possible military operation could have some advantages as well in addition to these risks. Turkey could show its deterrence power and might better defend the rights of Turkmens in Iraq with this operation. This would also be a message to Syrian Kurdish militia (PYD-YPG) for the future.
What Might Happen?
Turkish Armed Forces has been making a military practice at the border of Kurdistan in the last few days. This might be a sign of military operation or at least a threat to Erbil. CFR Middle East expert Steven Cook claims that although Ankara is clearly against a Kurdish state, he does not expect Turkish tanks to invade Erbil. Göktürk Tüysüzoğlu also wrote that he does not expect a military operation from Turkey to Northern Iraq under these circumstances. Turkish security expert Ufuk Ulutaş on the other hand claims that a military operation possibility is strong and undeniable. From my perspective, Ankara will limit itself to economic sanctions against Erbil if this referendum’s decision will not be implemented. However, even these sanctions might be temporary if Erbil and Ankara will come to close terms about the future of Iraq. It is obvious that this is not the best time for Ankara for such a development which might trigger nationalist insurgency in the country. Ankara is also afraid of a wrong message delivered to Syrian Kurds if Barzani declares independence. Syrian Kurds are also making their first elections (local elections) nowadays and they are very optimistic about autonomy or independence. Thus, Turkey’s position is understandable in some ways. The cancellation of the referendum on the other hand might make Massoud Barzani a non-influential actor. So, in my opinion, the most rational option for people who defend peace and stability in the region would be the actualization of the referendum, but non-implementation of the referendum’s decision unless a consensus is made between Ankara and Erbil.
Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ