Possible costs of Barzani’s mistake to Erdoğan

Possible costs of Barzani’s mistake to Erdoğan

“We never thought Barzani would make such a grave mistake. It appears we were wrong,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said on Sept. 26, referring to Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Masoud Barzani’s decision to hold a referendum on Sept. 25 on separating from Iraq, along the border with Turkey.

Erdoğan also complained that Barzani and his people, who have been asking for Turkey’s help and consultation on many issues for many years, did not say a word about the independence referendum plan, despite the fact that it could deeply affect Turkey, with its large Kurdish population.

”This decision, taken without any consultation or conversation, is simply a betreyal to our country,” Erdoğan said.

He also admitted that he and his Justice and Development Party’s (AK Parti) made a mistake in not taking Barzani’s referendum decision seriously - hoping that his faith in Turkey’s assistance so far would be stronger than his goal of an independent Kurdistan. 

This confession was somehow different from Erdoğan’s remarks last year about not being able to properly assess the ulterior motives of his former ally Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the July 15, 2016 coup attempt. In that case, Erdoğan put the blame on the ill intentions of Gülen and Gülenists. In the Barzani case, Erdoğan said “we were wrong,” implying a collective mistake for Ankara. 

Indeed, we cannot assume that the president conducts all intelligence and diplomatic work in Turkey before distilling it into a political assessment. Clearly National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Chief Hakan Fidan, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar all have their share of responsibility in Erdoğan’s criticism.

Despite the fact that Iraqi special forces joined the Turkish military exercise on the border with Iraq, and despite Erdoğan’s remarks about keeping military options on the table, it is not likely that Turkey will get involved in a massive military operation into Iraq targeting Barzani and his KRG. Perhaps the most that will happen will be some point operations against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which put aside its rivalry with Barzani to support the referendum.

Erdoğan’s calls for Barzani to “return from this mistake” and to not be a “tool of powers alien to the region” should be considered little more than political rhetoric. But if Barzani repeats his earlier words, when he said “We are not declaring an independent Kurdistan overnight,” this could be helpful for Erdoğan in domestic politics.

In contrast, the Turkish president’s threat on Sept. 26 to stop sending Turkish lorries to the KRG, saying “they will not find anything to eat,” is likely to carry international and domestic political risks. 

First of all, such threats are not in line with the humanitarian stance that Turkey has shown for refugees from Syria since the beginning of the civil war there. They also contradict with the humanitarian position that Turkey took when it welcomed Iraqi Kurds escaping from Saddam Hussein after Halabja massacre in 1988 and later in 1991 during the Gulf War. What’s more, there are millions of Kurds living in Iraq and Turkey who are relatives of each other, so carrying out such threats could hurt them all. Lastly, the AK Party receives many votes from Kurds in Turkish elections, sometimes more than the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and that is at least partly thanks to conservative Kurdish voters, who include a sizable share of Barzani sympathizers.

The 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey have already started to pose a political risk for Erdoğan, as locals in border areas - mostly populated by Turkish citizens of Kurdish and Arabic descent - who have welcomed Syrians as guests in need, have started to become uncomfortable with news that they could become permanent citizens. If warnings to leave the people of the KRG deprived of food continue, it could have an alienating effect on Erdoğan’s grassroots Kurdish supporters.

So the president’s Sept. 26 stance seems not only questionable - it also carries the potential to present a political risk to him.

Murat Yetkin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan,