The KRG’s independence referendum: Whatever will be, will be

The KRG’s independence referendum: Whatever will be, will be

The pressure on Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is building as the date for the Sept. 25 referendum on independence nears; unsurprisingly, Turkey’s attitude is also hardening considerably.

KRG leader Massoud Barzani, on the other hand, seems determined to go through with the referendum unless he is provided with concrete reassurances on the KRG’s sovereignty rights.

Until the vote was called, Turkey and the KRG actually enjoyed fairly pragmatic relations. Especially since 2007, Ankara chose to form closer ties with the KRG to counterbalance both the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Iran’s growing influence in the region.

Ironically, Ankara and Arbil have developed their relations in opposition to occasional objections from both Baghdad and Washington.

Since 2014, the KRG has been exporting oil to the world via Turkey after cutting Baghdad out of the loop. Likewise, Turkish investors have been heavily involved in northern Iraqi projects to ship natural gas to Europe via Turkey. Despite all the degradations caused by war, Iraq is now Turkey’s third biggest export market, with a significant portion of exports going to northern Iraq.

As for military ties, Turkish forces have been training Peshmerga at the Bashiqa camp, just 25 kilometers from Mosul, to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) since 2014—and all despite Baghdad’s opposition.

And we don’t have to look back particularly far to find better days between the two. Before Turkey’s April 16 referendum on implementing a presidential system, Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) campaigned for a “yes” vote.

Even if Turkey is against the independence referendum today, the fact that Ankara flew the KRG flag next to the Iraqi flag during all of Barzani’s visits since 2015 led to suggestions that Turkey viewed the prospect of sovereignty warmly back then.

So how can we explain the change in Ankara’s political tone, which has now come to dominate the headlines?

Even if Ankara doesn’t consider the KRG as an existential threat, it still views the vote from a security perspective amid worries that an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq will foster dreams of a greater Kurdistan in the region. As such, Turkey’s primary aim is to prevent the formation of a Kurdish corridor, which will include Iraq and Syria, and extend to the Mediterranean, encircling its borders.

When the KRG vote is assessed together with alleged preparations made by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is widely seen as the PKK’s Syrian arm, to declare an “autonomous Kurdish region” in northern Syria (as reported in the Hürriyet Daily News by Murat Yetkin), it becomes clearer why Turkey’s National Security Board (MGK) moved to convene earlier.

Amid this continuing uncertainty, we can expect any refusal by Barzani not to back down on the sovereignty vote to push Turkey closer to Iran, which also supports the maintenance of Syrian and Iraqi territorial integrity. 

In an effort to protect itself against any faits accomplis that would make use of the Kurdish card, Turkey’s ultimate security requires a solution to its own Kurdish issue, but the current situation presents little chance for the sides to pursue compromise, especially when domestic politics are so narrowly focused on the 2019 presidential elections and winning the support of the nationalist electorate is so crucial.

The military drills currently being conducted at the Habur border crossing are intended to intimidate northern Iraq, but Turkey does have other options before resorting to any military option, including closing Habur or the Kirkuk-Yumurtalık oil pipeline. 

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s offer to mediate between Arbil and Baghdad is indeed a constructive approach, but as Sept. 25 draws closer, the cost of backing down from the referendum will escalate for Barzani. 

And even in the case that the referendum is called off, concessions from Baghdad will draw Arbil a step closer to independence, and sooner or later we will be discussing the same topic again.

Ankara-Arbil ties have developed on a win-win basis until now. So rather than getting tied up in worries about security, it is an option for Turkey to view the KRG vote as an opportunity to increase its area of influence instead.