Turkey’s response to the Kurdish referendum

Turkey’s response to the Kurdish referendum

Ankara may be right to be alarmed by the northern Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) call for referendum, as it could herald a radical change along Turkey’s southern border. Such a radical step toward the establishment of a new independent state is not only a challenge for Turkey but also for all other regional powers and the international order. Nevertheless, the president and his government’s response to the referendum plan is extreme and worrying. 

It is extreme because government warnings have included the possibility of military action against the KRG. Such a prospect could pave the way for a full-scale war. War is not only the most terrible human act, it is also the worst option for trying to solve regional politics. 

The whole region has in recent years suffered a lot from military conflicts and interventions, and any military conflict with the KRG will have not only regional and international ramifications but also lead to a domestic catastrophe. 

Turkey is already suffering from the end of the Kurdish peace process and from ongoing confrontation with the Syrian Kurds. Under the current circumstances, further conflict with the Iraqi Kurds will inevitably lead to further destabilization of Turkey’s southeast and further enforce the resentment of all of Turkey’s Kurds, let alone the followers of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). After all, the referendum is perceived as a matter of “Kurdish unity,” despite the differences between KRG head Massoud Barzani and other Kurdish parties and circles - including the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).  

For the time being, only a few Kurdish-origin deputies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have expressed discontent about their party’s anti-referendum politics. But there must be many more sharing their sentiment, as most conservative Kurdish politicians and circles who support the AKP are sympathizers of Barzani. What was leverage at times of good relations between the AKP and Barzani will likely turn into liability in new circumstances.

The ruling party’s anti-referendum politics comes at a time of rising nationalist and anti-Kurdish discourse in Turkey. Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Engin Altay expressed his party’s concerns about this atmosphere, fostered by the discourse of the government, in his speech to parliament at the special session on Sept. 23 on renewing the mandate to send Turkish Armed Forces troops to Syria and Iraq. Altay said the CHP supports the mandate – which was due to be renewed next month but was brought forward to send another signal to Barzani - but he stressed that it is a mandate to fight the PKK, not for engaging in a war against the KRG. He also warned that the response to the referendum should “not sound anti-Kurdish.” 

Indeed, this must also be the concern of all sensible minds in Turkey. Unfortunately, the issue has been shoehorned into an ultra-nationalist context in Turkey amid references to the Turkmens of Kirkuk and even the “Turkishness of Kirkuk.”

Despite Altay’s concerns, it should be noted that the CHP itself is not immune to the nationalist propaganda that poisons the political atmosphere in Turkey. Unfortunately, CHP politicians largely express their opposition based on criticism of the previous good relations between the AKP and Barzani, rather than being more sober about the crisis. After all, CHP deputy Tuncay Özkan sounded little different from AKP politicians when he claimed that “the fate Kirkuk is no different from the fate of Ankara.” 

It seems that not only is the ruling party confused and almost taken hostage by nationalistic politics, the main opposition party and various opposition circles in Turkey are also unable to cope with such domestic and international issues. Under these circumstances, it looks like the Kurdish referendum will be yet another disaster for Turkey’s politics.