Turkey Heightens Pressure on Iraqi Kurdish Leaders to Cancel Independence Referendum

Ankara seeks to renew a mandate allowing the army to send troops over its southern border if developments in Iraq and Syria are perceived as national security threats

Iraqi Kurdish peshmergas urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, September 20, 2017.
Iraqi Kurdish peshmergas urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, September 20, 2017. SAFIN HAMED/AFP

The Turkish parliament convened Saturday for an extraordinary session to renew a mandate to allow the military to intervene in Iraq and Syria, as officials continued to press Iraqi Kurdish leaders to call off an upcoming independence referendum.

The decree, renewed annually since 2014 and set to expire next month, allows Turkey to send troops over its southern border if developments in Iraq and Syria are perceived as national security threats.

>> Kurdistan Independence: One day in September could wreak havoc in the Middle East / Analysis >>

The mandate, read in parliament Saturday, lists combating Kurdish militants operating in Syria and Iraq as well as the Islamic State as national security requirements. It also emphasizes the importance of Iraq's territorial integrity and says "separatism based on ethnicity" poses a threat to both Turkey and regional stability.

Turkish officials have repeatedly warned the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq to abandon plans for independence. Iraqi Kurds have scheduled such a vote for Monday.

Speaking in parliament, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli likened Monday's referendum to a brick that — if pulled out — could collapse a "structure built on sensitive and fragile balances." The resulting conflict could be global, he warned.

Earlier Saturday, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called the referendum "a mistake, an adventure." He said Turkey would take diplomatic, political and economic measures according to "developments on the ground." He added a cross-border military operation was also an option.

The mandate being voted on is a combination of two previous bills.

The Iraq Bill was passed in 2007 to combat outlawed Kurdish militants in northern Iraq to prevent attacks in Turkey. The Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK has waged a three-decade-long insurgency against the Turkish state and has its headquarters in Iraq's Qandil mountains. Turkey, the United States and the European Union consider it a terror organization.

The Syria Bill of 2012 was in response to mortar attacks by Syrian government forces on a Turkish border town.

The combined bill was passed in 2014 as ISIS waged a deadly campaign in Kobani, the Syrian Kurdish town on the Turkish border. ISIS failed to take over the town and the victory strengthened Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units or YPG, who are now a key U.S. ally against ISIS in Syria.

Turkey, however, considers them a terror group and an extension of the PKK.
The mandate has allowed Turkey to launch a cross-border military operation into northern Syria with Syrian opposition forces in August 2016 to clear its border of ISIS and YPG. Turkey's air force has also been bombing targets in northern Iraq and Syria.

The Turkish military, meanwhile, said additional units joined this week's previously unannounced exercises near the Iraqi border as the chief of staff welcomed his Iraqi counterpart to the country.