Critical September for Turkish foreign policy

Critical September for Turkish foreign policy

Turkey is expecting a bustling period in its foreign policy. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım is scheduled to leave for a visit to Washington and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be heading to New York to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations.

In the meantime, the ongoing trouble in Ankara’s relations with Germany could be reflected on broader ties with the European Union. Indeed, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also conveyed to European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker her veto on expanding the customs union with Turkey. Juncker’s “State of the Union” speech on Sept. 13 has thus taken on more importance for Turkey due to this change in Germany’s policy. 

Another key forthcoming issue for Turkey is the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) planned independence referendum, scheduled to take place on Sept. 25, one day after the German federal election. The KRG will hold the referendum in a troubled environment amid political conflicts, economic crises, and unemployment, and while Iraq’s campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) rages on.

KRG President Masoud Barzani, who still occupies the office of the presidency despite his term in office ending amid political crises in the KRG, announced in an interview that neither he nor any of his family members would stand as candidates for an independent Kurdistan presidential election scheduled for Nov. 1.

So Will Barzani abandon active political life after a potential “Yes” vote in the referendum? One possibility is that he may undertake a “suprapolitical” role, aiming for international recognition of a “Yes” result in the aftermath of the referendum. 

There is still intense pressure on the KRG for the cancellation or postponement of the referendum. Turkey and Iran, two of its neighboring countries, are strongly against the attempt due to the risk of having a cross-border impact. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recently conveyed this message directly to the Barzani administration, with which Ankara has had good relations for years. 

While Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran completely reject the Sept. 25 referendum, the U.S. wants it to be “postponed,” saying now is not the right time as it could cause a distraction in the war against ISIL. Barzani has so far defied all pressure, but he has left the door open, saying certain guarantees must be given.

What does Barzani want? For one thing, if the referendum is postponed he wants a guarantee of the recognition of the legitimacy of a future referendum result by the international community.

Turkey in a difficult position

The KRG referendum has certainly put Turkey in a dilemma. In addition to the referendum itself, there is a big risk of damaging economic and political relations with the KRG.

Rudaw, a news portal with close ties to the KRG administration, recently published data released by the KRG Ministry of Commerce and Industry. According to this data, trade between the KRG and Turkey has hit $5 billion, growing 20 percent in the first half of 2017. Rudaw reported that the opening of regions liberated from ISIL to construction had played a major role in this growth, while cooperation for the transportation of petroleum also has strategic importance.

Meanwhile, the inclusion in the referendum of the oil-rich, disputed territory of Kirkuk - where the local Turkmen population is significant but where their status is unclear – poses another test for Arbil-Ankara relations. It is also affecting Turkey’s domestic political dynamics. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s recent message that the referendum decision cannot be a “casus belli,” contradicting the stance of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), was therefore remarkable. 

Another key element on the referendum is the fact that Sinjar, where many Yazidis live and where the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has declared autonomy, will not take part in the referendum. Influential wings of the PKK believe that Barzani’s decision is simply a propaganda initiative aimed against the PKK.

Clearly, with its various dimensions the KRG referendum comes to the fore as one of September’s most important issues for Turkey and the wider region.