Are Russia and the US giving a green light to an independent Kurdish state?

Are Russia and the US giving a green light to an independent Kurdish state?

Immediately after his return from the United States, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held a key security meeting and then chaired the cabinet in order to announce Turkey’s counter-measures against the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) bid to vote for independence on Sept. 25. 

Before these meetings, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım once again called on KRG President Massoud Barzani to cancel the referendum in order to avoid more tension in the already unstable Middle East. He also repeated that Ankara considers breaking up the territorial integrity of Iraq a matter of national security and will therefore use all of its rights to stop it.  

Turkey’s efforts to stop the referendum have intensified over the past week and had two major legs: First, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched a military drill along the Iraqi border and issued a strong message to Barzani, hinting that insisting on the referendum would have a military response. 

Second, President Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu engaged in hectic diplomacy in New York, where they attended the U.N. General Assembly, in order to mobilize the international community against the Iraqi Kurdish independence bid. The Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi foreign ministers issued a joint declaration against the referendum, declaring that they agreed to take counter-measures in coordination. 

The third move will be announcing sanctions that Turkey will impose against the KRG in the event that Barzani does not take a step back. The Sept. 23 vote at parliament for a mandate to be given to the government to deploy troops to Iraq and Syria should also be considered under this title. 

All these efforts aim to persuade Barzani that life will be much harder for him and his KRG if he does decide to move forward with the referendum. 

However, with only a few days left to the referendum, Barzani has not signaled any retreat. All eyes will be on a meeting that will take place in Baghdad over the weekend between KRG representatives and central government officials. This meeting may perhaps be the last chance for the cancellation of the referendum. 

At the point to which we have arrived, Barzani is trying to be very careful to not openly challenge Turkey’s opposition to the referendum, while his spokesmen repeat that they want to continue good relations with Turkey and other neighboring countries. 

Barzani, as a seasoned politician who has long been waiting for the right time to move ahead for independence, should have beforehand calculated that his bid would face a strong reaction from Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran. However, the main capitals that he has been concerned with are Washington and Moscow. 

So far, it is possible to argue that neither the U.S. nor Russia have expressed a firm rejection of the referendum or actively tried to persuade Barzani to change his mind. The highest level U.S. official who has gone to Arbil to talk to KRG officials is Brett McGurk, special envoy in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). 

To my knowledge, neither U.S. President Donald Trump nor Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken with Barzani on the phone to directly push him to give it up. On the contrary, there were news reports about new energy deals between a leading Russian company and the KRG in just the last week. 

But there is still time for the U.S. or Russia to intervene and call on Barzani to cancel the referendum. If they do not do so and therefore give an indirect green light to the referendum, they will later have to deal with the chaos that will likely erupt after Sept. 25. 

The difficulty for Barzani is that any cancellation or postponement of the referendum will be interpreted as a major political defeat by regional powers, and therefore an end of his raison d’etre. If world powers really are keen to stabilize the Middle East and keep Iraq intact, they must find a diplomatic way to avoid a major crisis in the region.