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Why KRG referendum is not a threat to Turkey

By Hemin Lihony 21/9/2017
The Kurdistan Region’s upcoming referendum on independence from Iraq, scheduled to be held on the 25th of September, tests the decade-long stable stance of Turkey towards the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The KRG has continuously prioritised and chosen Turkey over its powerful Iranian neighbour, and worked to bolster its mutual interests as well as ties. 

If Turkey decides to impose sanctions on the Kurdistan Region because of the upcoming referendum, it will effectively align itself with the interests of those parties and groups that harbour hostile attitudes towards, it including Hashd al-Shaabi and the PKK. 

The Region’s long lasting relations with Turkey, economic and intelligence sharing ties may well become jeopardised if Turkey chooses to seek out harsh measures in response to the referendum. In contrast to this, Iranian officials have taken a more subtle and soft tone towards the referendum. 

Kurdish commentators and political analysts believe a covert foreign policy plan may be at play, as the Iranian tone towards the referendum appears to be less harsh than that of KRG’s key ally in the region, Turkey. They argue that relations with Ankara and Erbil could be destroyed, giving Tehran the upper hand with Erbil, and ultimately leaving the small Kurdish enclave to look out for its own interests or succumb to Iranian demands.  

It was unimaginable, and perhaps even unforeseeable that Turkey would undermine its only true ally in the region. The harsh stance of Turkey towards the KRG does not serve the interests of Ankara both in the long and short run. 

Turkey’s trade with the Kurdistan Region amounts to around 10 billion USD on an annual basis, with four thousand Turkish companies operating in the Region. It is believed that Turkish trade with the Region will likely increase significantly with a stable, prosperous and strong KRG.

What is often neglected, and not highlighted, is that the KRG’s referendum on independence is not legally binding nor does it necessitate statehood. It merely seeks to acknowledge the wishes of the Kurdistani people on their future — an internationally recognised right.  It is merely seeking to establish the political standpoint of the Kurdish people, having suffered ethnic cleansing, genocide, state-sanctioned discrimination and political isolation by Baghdad.

Statehood cannot materialise overnight. It is an intricate process that takes time to achieve, but a referendum on independence, regardless of whether it is recognised by Iraq, will establish the dissatisfaction of Kurdish people with Baghdad, and the necessity of treating Kurdish governing institutions as equal partners by the Iraqi central government.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Iranian-influenced policymakers in Iraq have dramatically increased. It is largely believed that no one can ascend to the steps of power in Iraq without the influence or support of powerful Iranian Shiite parties. 

This is a reality that cannot be escaped or changed without undermining the entire sectarian political establishment. This is evident from the fact that United States and the international community have spent billions over the past decade to rebuild, strengthen and increase nation-building institutions, and yet despite this the Baghdad government still gives favouritism to its neighbouring Iranian ally. 

The KRG understands and acknowledges the concerns of Turkey in regards to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. It’s noteworthy to point out that Ankara currently deals with the de-facto Kurdish control of the city, and this is considered as a ‘bad’ option for Turkey, but the alternative to this is much worse.

Military manpower supported by both Iran and Shiite forces have already established their presence outside Kirkuk city. They are eager to facilitate a means of entering the city and retaking control from the Peshmerga troops and the KRG.

More than 140,000 barrels of crude oil are exported to the international market through Turkey. This may well change as Iran and Baghdad have reached an agreement to build a pipeline that would export crude oil from Kirkuk via Iran.

This is not far-fetched prospective reality. The Hashd al-Shaabi, a powerful force in the region, is within distance of Kirkuk, and a weakened KRG will provide the pretext for them to take over Kirkuk. Once again, why would Turkey choose to align itself with Baghdad, without fully considering that the option to not actively oppose Kurdish referendum may well be in their interests in the long-run. 

Within KRG cities, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani faced strong criticism for taking a strong and bold pro-Turkish stance. He is continuously criticised for “putting all eggs in the Turkish basket.”  The opposition groups in KRG have the perfect opportunity to exploit the situation if Turkey chooses to enforce harsh anti-KRG measures. The PKK, on the other hand, will likely attract more sympathisers and supporters to their agenda. 

Turkey must become aware and understand that the PKK has strengthened its base and may well seek to take many seats in the future parliament of Kurdistan Region if Barzani is weakened. It is noteworthy to point out that according to statistics provided by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), around 10-11 people join the group on a daily basis in the Sulaimani province and ‘opposition areas.’ Will Turkey give the PKK the perfect magnet to attract and recruit more people to its cause?

The PKK growth will not just be in terms of its military, but also in politics as it exerts pressure on opposition parties to continue their full frontal opposition to KRG’s independence referendum for the sake of undermining Barzani’s allies and Turkey in the long run.

In short, Turkey’s options are not good, but the option that is worse for the country, is one that imposes sanctions on Kurdistan Region, weakens both Barzani and the KRG, and serves the interests of pro-Iranians and the PKK groups.



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


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