Problems in foreign ties weaken Turkey’s hand against Iraqi Kurdish referendum

Problems in foreign ties weaken Turkey’s hand against Iraqi Kurdish referendum

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Problems in foreign ties weaken Turkey’s hand against Iraqi Kurdish referendum Turkey opposes the upcoming referendum for a Kurdish state in Iraq, but in order to express this opposition it must be careful to maintain a balanced policy, academic Hasan Köne tells the Hürriyet Daily News. 

Why do you think Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani has chosen this timing for a referendum?

The issue is very complex because it has become a trans-border issue. A number of unexpected developments have taken place in the region. An intervention in Syria has taken place and - just like Saddam Hussein once did in Iraq - the Syrian regime pulled back from the northeast of the country, leaving a Kurdish region on its own.

With Saddam’s move in Iraq in the early 1990s, a [Kurdish] entity was set up in northern Iraq. And with the second American intervention, this entity was solidified. There are now five American bases in the KRG and one is actually quite close to the İncirlik air base near Adana in southern Turkey. The American military says: “We have seen what happened when we pulled back, so this time we will not leave the region.” And when the Americans eventually pull out, they want to leave behind a secure area.

The KRG is currently pro-Western. In Turkey, in contrast, positive feelings for the West are almost non-existent. So Americans feel more comfortable in the KRG. In addition, Western powers decided that the YPG is a reliable base for its operations in Syria. These operations are not conducted with the Turkish army, which has anyway witnessed several setbacks, such as the [Erkenekon and Balyoz] trials in 2008 [when some army members were accused of trying to toppling the government] and the coup attempt last year. Today, we don’t know whether the Turkish military maintains a reliable structure based on trust, which is a must for any military operation. I am sure the West and NATO have an idea about this.

In short, conditions in the international environment have become ripe for an independence referendum. Some European countries and United States have voiced objections, but I think this is just soft rhetoric. If they genuinely did not want the KRG referendum, it would not go ahead. Currently the U.S. seems preoccupied by Syria. It is worried that this referendum could negatively affect its operations in Syria but we don’t yet know whether it will take strong action to stop the referendum.

Let me also add that this is the first time I have seen Americans and Russians supporting the same ethnic group. The Russians see [the Kurds] positively as a secular group. 

So overall Barzani is probably thinking “let me see the outcome of the referendum without immediately declaring independence.”
How do you evaluate Turkey’s reaction?

Turkey has many problems with the United States, but the Russians are also uneasy about certain steps taken by Turkey, most recently its vocal support for the Rohingya Muslims in Myammar. Meanwhile, Turkey and Iran have objected to the referendum but they cannot militarily intervene as long as there are U.S. bases there. For the first time in 37, the Iranian chief of general staff recently visited Turkey. Iran is willing to do something about the referendum, but then it is being targeted by Israel. In this environment you could face some difficulties if you do not soften your rhetoric.

Do you mean to say that Turkey has not endorsed a tougher rhetoric up to now because it has currently so many strains in its relations?

Indeed. Realpolitik and emotions are getting mixed up in Turkey. For instance, Ankara should under normal circumstances cooperate with Iran on the Kurdish issues as they have similar stances, but then you also see some sectarian calculations come in for both sides. In another example, Turkey wants to do business with Saudi Arabia but it also works with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Again we see sectarian policies.

On the KRG referendum question, we have a U.S. president who cannot take a decision and who does not know much about the issue, while we also have a pro-Israel lobby that is pushing for a Kurdish state. Israel is basically the only state that openly supports a Kurdish state. So Turkey has to rely on Iran, Russia and China to create a counter balance, but it cannot do that either at the moment.

The Foreign Ministry needs to be very careful in maintaining a balanced policy. It needs to think about Turkey’s problems and interests. Can it afford to react according to feelings? Could this damage Turkey’s national interest? OK, Muslims are being persecuted and human rights are being violated. But what are the consequences of the policy I have endorsed regarding these problems. What do I get in return?
In short, what matters is capability. We have problems in terms of capability because emotions have been infringing in rational decisions.
But perhaps endorsing a softer rhetoric is the rational option, as you claim there is not much Ankara can do about the referendum in the KRG.

Indeed. Domestic politics are also important. Being too critical of the referendum may cost the votes of conservative Sunni Kurds in the 2019 presidential elections. That’s why this is a complex and multi-dimensional issue. The long term consequences of the result of the referendum have to be calculated. How will it affect Turkey’s domestic situation? Will Ankara also feel the need to give some autonomy to certain regions within Turkey? But this will not be accepted by the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP]. The Kurdish question is the only reason why MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli has been supporting the AKP. If there is a change in the Kurdish question, why would Bahçeli support the AKP?
So with the current domestic and regional conditions, you’re saying that the government does not have many options?

There is no room for maneuver. It has to give up on emotionalism.
Does that mean that Turkey will be forced to accept an independent entity in northern Iraq?

It seems so, out of obligation. It was previously forced to accept an autonomous region there and now it looks like Turkey is in the process of accepting [an independent entity]. It cannot intervene there, due to the U.S. bases and the uneasiness of Russia and Israel. 
The Turkish government has recently a much stronger stance. How do you explain this?

I think it started to respond to reactions from public opinion. But does it have the capability to support this rhetoric with concrete action?
Turkey has long been against the establishment of a Kurdish state. In the current circumstances, should Turkey still feel concerned about such an eventuality?

It depends on how other countries will guide this entity. Some people claim that Turkey and northern Iraq will eventually unite and Turkey will end up expanding its territory. Having good relations with Turkey is to the advantage of Iraqi Kurds. But will those who are unhappy about Turkey allow this to happen? What will be the repercussions of that independent entity in domestic terms?

Again, much depends on what others are planning. What do they expected from this entity? Are they hoping that this entity will preoccupy Arabs, Kurds and Iran for 40 years, thus making life easier for Israel. Is Russia thinking that a secular entity could halt Saudi Arabia?

Who is Hasan Köni?


Problems in foreign ties weaken Turkey’s hand against Iraqi Kurdish referendum


Hasan Köni is a professor of international relations and is a frequent commentator on television.

He is currently among the academic staff of Istanbul’s Kültür University. He graduated from Ankara University’s Political Science Faculty in 1970, after which he became a part of the academic staff in 1985, staying there until 2003, when he moved to Istanbul and became the head of international relations at Yeditepe University.

In addition to his affiliation with state universities, he also taught at the Police Academy between 1981 and 2002, the War Academy between 1983 and 1990 and the National Security Academy between 1997 and 2003.

His area of interest includes U.S. foreign policy, international law and international treaties and organizations. He is the author of several books, including “Decision-making at the United Nations” published in 1980.