What awaits Ankara after the KRG’s referendum failure?
Masoud Barzani, the outgoing president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is talking about “betrayal” and questioning why the U.S. allowed the Iraqi army and its Iranian-backed Shiite militias to use American-supplied arms to expel its allies, the Kurds, from Kirkuk.
The oil-rich city is seen by many Kurds as their “Jerusalem,” so this is obviously a sore subject. But we see the historic object lesson again, and the message is clear.
Kurdish reliance on the U.S., especially during what the Kurds believe to be critical moments in their history, has proven once again to be misguided.
The U.S. always acts according to its greater interests, and this is why it supported Baghdad against the KRG, no matter what sympathy U.S. officials may hold for the Kurds.
Barzani clearly misread the writing on the wall and made a mistake of historic proportions with his independence referendum on Sept. 25. He never expected the outcome he got, and is leaving the scene deeply disappointed.
Meanwhile, the specter of internecine feuding among Kurdish political groups in northern Iraq has also been revived. Since the fall of Kirkuk they have been accusing each other of “betrayal,” “collaboration” or “adventurism.”
The future of the Iraqi Kurds after their “independence debacle” remains unclear. What is certain though is that there will have to be a fair amount of “recalibration” in Arbil, the KRG capital, regarding the best way to move forward.
One aspect of this recalibration will inevitably entail closer ties with Russia, which is investing heavily in the energy sector in the Kurdish-held northern Iraq, over Baghdad’s head and much to Ankara’s silent disapproval.
Kurds everywhere also noted Moscow’s openly declared support for their political aspirations, even if it believes the way the KRG conducted its independence referendum was incorrect. The Kurds will undoubtedly try to build on this support, given their increased suspicions about the West after losing Kirkuk.
Russia is also likely to respond positively to any overtures from the KRG, especially if these enable it to gain ground in the region against the U.S.
There is also the question of what these developments will mean for the alliance in Syria between the U.S. and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a group allied to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
This alliance will probably hold for now, but the Syrian Kurds will also be more cautious about relying too much on Washington. It is obvious that Washington still needs the YPG in Syria, so Ankara will be watching closely to see what steps it takes to reassure the Syrian Kurds will not betray them.
Moscow is also eyeing the Syrian Kurds and supports them to the extent that its interests require. Although it opposes Kurdish independence, Damascus has also said that Kurdish autonomy could be negotiated, which is in line with Russia’s position.
Moscow wants Syria’s territorial unity to be maintained, but knows this can only happen under a federal or confederal arrangement after all the bloodshed the country has seen.
What all this means is that Ankara’s nightmare about any kind of self-rule for the Kurds is not over, despite the delight Turkish officials feel over Barzani’s “independence debacle.”
Some also argue that Ankara’s threats aimed at the KRG after the referendum will weaken Turkey’s hand in the region. They say ties between Ankara and Baghdad in recent years have been strained, while Barzani – once considered a close friend by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - was a more reliable ally for Turkey.
The bottom line is that with the U.S., Russian, Iranian, European and even Israeli involvement in question, Ankara clearly needs a more realistic and proactive approach to the “Kurdish reality,” with which it is going to have to live one way or another.