This week millions of Iraqi Kurds went to the polls to vote in favor of independence in a nationwide referendum. This should have been an unalloyed and joyous occasion, the fulfillment of a century long dream of independence. Yet behind the veneer of happiness - disappointment.
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The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) was once a beacon of hope. It displayed democratic and liberal credentials while boasting of economic successes. Unlike the rest of Iraq, the KRI was also safe and secure. And its strong political ties and trade links with Turkey was the shining crown of the foreign policy of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
However, lately the picture has turned less rosy.
Not only is the KRG bitterly split between rival political parties, but the KRG’s leader, Masoud Barzani, has twice exceeded the limits of his rule. When challenged, he went as far as to suspend parliament. The economy is also in a downturn, hurt by the declining costs of oil. However, the biggest disappointment for Erbil is the lack of international support for independence ahead of the referendum.
The United Nations, the United States, the Arab League, Iraq, and Iran voiced opposition. EU nations and Russia remained sceptical. The only country to express outright support was Israel. In the case of Turkey, not only was its response opposed, but it was belligerent. Ankara practically threatened military action.
Ankara coordinated its military response with that Iraq and Iran. Turkish armed forces mobilized on the border and rehearsed military action. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to close the Turkish-KRI border and cripple the flow of Kurdish gas to international markets. As a sign of things to come, on the day of the referendum, the KRI-Turkish border ground to a virtual standstill.
Ankara’s decision to up the ante reflects serious concerns that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan might embolden its 15 million citizens of Kurdish origin. Ankara is especially concerned that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the Turkish state has been fighting on and off since the 1980s and claimed the lives of around 40,000 of its citizens, will feel empowered.
What is more, Turkey is now deeply entrenched in Syria. Ankara is disturbed about the presence of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey claims is the Syrian branch of the PKK, along its 560-mile border. Last year Turkey launched an incursion into Syria to push back both ISIS and the PYD. If there were to be an independent Kurdistan in Iraq, Ankara fears that the PYD might follow suit in Syria and create a contiguous Kurdish territory spanning from the Iraqi-Iranian border all the way to the Mediterranean.
Ankara is also angered that the referendum also took place in the disputed areas of Iraq, especially Kirkuk, beyond the official boundaries of the KRI. Turkey feels obligated to protect Iraq’s three million strong Turkmen community, especially as the Turkish government is currently supported by ultra-nationalists, for whom pan-Turkic ties are important. Tensions between Kurds and Turkmen, particularly in Kirkuk, are simmering at best. Turkmens do not trust the KRG, and groups such as the Iraqi Turkmen Front established militias ahead of the referendum.
Regardless, Turkey’s response is misguided. Ankara has much to gain by supporting Kurdish independence.
The KRG is led by Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which is vehemently at odds with the PKK and its Syrian affiliate, the PYD. Barzani has supported Turkey’s fight against the PKK by giving permission for Turkish operations in KRG territory. At Erdogan’s behest, Barzani travelled to Turkey to deliver a speech emphasizing harmony between Turks and Kurds. Barzani also set up rival Kurdish organizations to the PYG in Syria, such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Syria and the Kurdish National Council. Indeed, Barzani himself declared that Turkey has "no better friend" in the region than the KRG.
As an independent state, Kurdistan would be able to further weaken the PKK and its Syrian affiliates. Trade between Ankara and Erbil could increase and Kurdish oil could be extracted at a greater pace through Turkey, cementing Ankara’s position as an international trading and energy hub.
What is more, conservative Turkish Kurds, perhaps as many as 25 -30 per cent of the Kurdish vote in Turkey, and more inclined to support President Erdogan and the AKP, are also quite sympathetic to Barzani. By supporting the Iraqi Kurdish leader’s state building efforts, Erdogan may even win additional support.
The Kurdish march to independence from Iraq is irresistible. By Turkey firmly voicing its opposition Ankara has forgone an opportunity to lead on the world stage. Had Turkey expressed support it could have swayed the U.S., European countries and perhaps even Russia to do the same. Instead Turkey fell back to a position which fails to see the long-term benefits of Kurdish independence, and instead finds itself in the center of yet another regional crisis.
Dr Simon A. Waldman is a Mercator-IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of the recently published The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1