Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim (R) meets with President of Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) Masoud Barzani (L) in Ankara, Turkey on February 27, 2017. Photo: AA
One country that is still reeling more than anyone else from the shock of Kurdistan’s referendum is Turkey. Ankara feels like a friend has conducted an independence referendum without consultation, which has been one of Turkey’s defined red lines for a hundred years.
We gather from President Erdogan and Prime Minister Yildirim’s words that they had expected, up to the last moment, the government in Erbil would cancel the vote. It all turned out differently. Hence, we hear such reaction from them that sometimes goes beyond just harsh words.
Reasons for Turkey’s tough stance
One: Erdogan believes that Ankara’s assistance to Erbil were definitely worth cancelling the referendum, at least on their demand as a friend.
Two: Turkey’s foreign policy is grappling with a series of crisis with the United States and the European Union and therefore one less crisis would have served it well. Ankara believes the referendum has put them in a tight position and unless they take a tough stance its relations with Iraq and Iran—two important neighbors—would be damaged.
Three: Turkey and Iran have recently been closer than ever before, especially on Syria, where they’ve both agreed to find a solution under Russian auspices, and they’ve been able to bring a degree of stability to parts of Syria through the establishment of de-escalation zones. Obviously Ankara does not want to lose Iran at this time which is a solid trade partner and enjoy strong enough of a relationship that couldn’t be severed over Syria.
Four: The Turkish policy failed in Syria and now it does not want a similar scenario repeated in Iraq and millions more refugees flood its gates. The latest figures show that Syrian refugees have so far cost Ankara $30 billion since the start of the Syrian war.
Five: There has been this concept in Washington, Tehran and Baghdad that the independence referendum was a Turkish project to pave the way for easier Kurdish oil sales and that Ankara was behind the whole project. Now, Erdogan wants to distance himself from such a notion in practice.
Six: Domestically, the two rival parties of CHP and MHP are vehemently opposed to the Kurdish referendum and under no excuse does Erdogan want ordinary citizens to rally behind these two parties, especially as the country is bracing itself for elections in 2019.
What’s at stake for Turkey?
One: If Turkey’s tough talk leads to actual actions against the Kurdistan Region, then Ankara will lose one of its best allies in the region. Ankara knows all too well that it has only two options in Iraq: The Kurds and the Iran-affiliated Shiite groups.
Two: Turkey proved that its position could shift overnight and be a friend today and a foe tomorrow. If only half of the Kurdish population were angry with Turkey before the referendum, now all are upset and ask if Turkey is a sincere friend.
Three: If Ankara loses the hearts and minds of Iraqi Kurds, it will most certainly lose its own Kurdish support in Turkey. Reports indicate that Kurdish members and supporters of the AKP party are unhappy with Erdogan and Yildirim’s antagonistic stance. Erdogan may well lose the votes and support that carried him to the presidency.
Four: What does Turkey have to gain from a Baghdad where an Iranian army general can draw and changes policies? The United States spent billions on Iraq and its army yet it’s unable to press Baghdad into making a statement that could remotely oppose Iran. What hope does Turkey have in this regard?
Five: Ankara’s Iraq policy is shrouded in vagueness. One day Erdogan labels the Hashd al-Shaabi as terrorists. The next day his ambassador is posing for a photo with the leaders of the same militia. Turkey knows that any closeness with Baghdad would first and foremost upset the Sunnis. Turkey has for long opposed a Shiite expansion yet it now stands in the same trench as Tehran and the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi.
Six: Despite the rapid progress in Baghdad-Ankara relations and telephone calls between their prime ministers and joint military drills, Abadi says their disputes with Ankara still persist.
What must Turkey do?
Turkey must know that the Kurdistan Region is the only place it could deal with genuinely and with peace of mind and that friendliness with Erbil would win the AKP party not only trade benefits but a political clout among Turkey’s own millions of Kurds. The tough stance of leaders in Ankara has only served Iran. If Ankara continues on this path of threats and takes any actions, it will soon find itself having lost both Baghdad and Erbil.