Is Turkey ready to live with an independent Kurdistan?
If there is no last-minute backtrack, the Iraqi Kurds will vote in a referendum on independence in two weeks. It is a move that will drastically shake all regional balances in the already unstable Middle East.
Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani has displayed a firm position on the upcoming polls, with consistent statements vowing that there will be no cancellation of the referendum despite calls from Baghdad, neighboring countries, and international powers.
Turkey’s official line – as voiced many times by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other prominent government figures - is that this vote should not take place as it would make no positive contribution to regional peace and stability. They have described the decision as a grave mistake that it could deepen ethnic and sectarian fault lines in the region.
This stance is consistent with Turkey’s traditional foreign policy since the early 1990s on protecting the territorial integrity of Iraq, and of Syria regarding the ongoing civil war that threatens the disintegration of its southern neighbor.
During negotiations with the United States before the second Iraq War in 2003, Turkey’s two main red lines were about protecting the territorial integrity of Iraq and guarding the rights of Turkmens in Iraq’s oil-rich Kirkuk province.
There were external and internal reasons for this policy. Many believe that breaking the unity of Iraq will ultimately increase the influence of Iran on Iraqi territory and will only create more ethnic and sectarian-based problems. What’s more, this move could also have reflections in Syria as the Syrian Kurds seek autonomous rights in the northern part of the country, bordering Turkey.
Regarding internal policies, the independence of Iraqi Kurds could inspire the Kurdish population inside Turkey, putting at risk the deepening of bonds between the country’s southeast and the rest of the country.
Looking from these perspectives, one may have expected more decisive action from Turkey to try to persuade Barzani to not go ahead with this referendum. Ankara, for example, could have threatened to close its border with northern Iraq, to close its airspace to the KRG, and to suspend energy agreements with the KRG. It could also have urged private Turkish companies operating in northern Iraq that conditions are not adequate to continue their presence in the KRG due to potential political risks.
But it seems that Ankara has been obliged to follow a relatively soft stance with regard to the referendum due to its own mistakes.
There are two key alternatives going forward. If the referendum is cancelled it should be because of strong opposition from Baghdad and other Iraqi groups, including Arabs, Turkmens and opposition Kurds. Any excessive pressure from neighbors would only strengthen the hand of Barzani.
But if the referendum proves unavoidable then Turkey should find better ways to live with the idea of an independent Kurdistan across its border. Ankara has long been complaining about the “Sykes-Picot order” in the Middle East, claiming that it was set up by the West a century ago and should now be destroyed.
Of course, at the start of this decade the Turkish government was not expecting to see the rise of Syrian Kurdish groups and various jihadist terror bands across Syria and Iraq. But weakening ties with Baghdad and cutting all ties with Damascus ultimately allowed the Iraqi Kurds and other groups in Syria to come closer to accomplishing what they have in mind.
Clearly, the break in the Ankara-Baghdad-Damascus line will have big ramifications for the entire Middle East.