Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani (L) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: AA
The Kurdistan Region's announcement that it will be holding a referendum on independence on September 25 was met with opposition from Turkish officials, with the Turkish Foreign Ministry calling it a “grave mistake.” Despite the thaw in relations between Ankara and Erbil over the course of the last decade Turkey still contends that independence for the Kurdistan Region would be a negative development.
“Turkey continues to oppose Kurdish independence,” Joel Wing, an Iraq analyst who runs the Musings for Iraq blog, told Rudaw English. “With the heightened conflict with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] inside Turkey and then the Syrian Kurds, having Iraqi Kurdistan declare independence would just be an added headache for Ankara.”
Wing points out that this is so “even though the PKK and its affiliates in Syria do not call for independence but rather a form of autonomy.”
“I'm not sure Erdogan really sees any distinction,” he reasoned. “They are all means to self-determination and Turkey sees that as a threat to its nation-state and the region. That's especially true now as Erdogan is becoming more and more autocratic.”
Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani is welcomed as a respected statesman by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he goes on state visits to Turkey. In recent years Ankara has made a point of displaying the Kurdish flag during these visits, even flying it prominently over Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. Erdogan's own visit to Erbil in 2011, the first time a Turkish leader visited the Region, saw Turkish and Kurdish flags flown alongside each other in the Kurdish capital.
“We have an historic relationship with Iraq and with this beautiful region,” Erdogan said in a speech at the time. He also went so far as to declare
that, “The security of Erbil means the security of Turkey.”
While Turkey did not send forces to defend Erbil when it was threatened by ISIS in August 2014, it has since treated wounded Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers, an act which shows how clearly it distinguishes the Kurdistan Region to its Kurdish enemies: the PKK and the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
The thaw in relations is remarkable considering that Turkey long viewed the Kurdistan Region's autonomy as a possible threat to its own security. Ten years ago it frequently threatened to militarily intervene if Kirkuk was incorporated into the Region. At that time Barzani invariably said such a move on Turkey's part would be disastrous, repeatedly affirming that the rights of the Turkmen in Kirkuk would be respected and that Turkey had no right to march its forces over Kurdistan's borders.
“If Turkey thinks it can bring fire into our home they have to know they'll also be caught by fire,” Barzani once warned, a statement which clearly indicated that his region has no intention of meddling in the affairs of its neighbours provided they did not first do so in Kurdistan. This is a stance that even the most neutral countries on the planet would take if facing the prospect of coming under unilateral military attack.
Today the Kurdistan Region is the only neighbour Turkey has genuinely friendly relations with.
“Perhaps the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] remains the only entity in our immediate region that Ankara feels at ease with,” wrote Cansu Çamlibel, a Turkish journalist with the country's prominent Hurriyet newspaper, earlier this year.
Barzani also hasn't supported the PKK in its campaign against Turkey. In recent years he has invariably called for a negotiated settlement to the three-decade conflict. In his visit to Turkey in February
, Barzani raised the issue of imprisoned members of the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) when meeting with Erdogan and also expressed his willingness to help restart the peace process, which collapsed in the summer of 2015.
Turkish officials may be opposing independence for the Kurdistan Region in public while quietly telling Erbil it will accept a declaration provided it is achieved following extensive negotiations and agreements with Baghdad, which is exactly what the Region is doing. If not, they may risk undermining the fruitful and historic headway made in its bilateral relationship with the Kurdistan Region, along with another historic opportunity of having the only independent Kurdish nation state in the world as a peaceful neighbour whose record demonstrates that it understands Turkey's legitimate concerns and interests in the Region.
Kurdistan would also be a neighbour with which Ankara could broker effective settlements to end its own conflicts with Kurdish groups in the southeast and in Syria. Such a development would be beneficial for all parties involved.