This article was published in Arab News on October 2, 2017.
Turkey must beware the Kurdish quagmire
Turkey is among the countries that will be seriously affected by the independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. However, the vote was not a surprise for any farsighted leader, since the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani has always said his people were entitled to an independent state and he would continue to work to that end.
This is why Turkish leaders focus on the timing of the referendum rather than its substance. The referendum is considered untimely because the Middle East is in turmoil. Daesh is crippled but not defeated; the Syrian crisis is nearing the end, but the main actors have not yet agreed on the endgame; there is no agreement among the main actors on the future role of Bashar Assad, and finally the Iraqi government has not completed its transition to democracy. These and other reasons make the referendum untimely in the minds of the main stakeholders. But for Barzani, the circumstances may now look all the more suitable for precisely these reasons. The controversy cannot be assessed properly without putting oneself in Barzani’s shoes.
In other words, Barzani threw the ball into the opposite court by taking this bold and risky step so that other countries think twice before they push the Middle East into further instability, although there is no guarantee that he will succeed.
The threatening tone in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statements continues unabated, while Prime Minister Binali Yildirim uses slightly different rhetoric. He said Turkey considered the referendum null and void, but the military option would come up only if diplomacy and economic measures failed. He also said that if the security of Turkmens in the northern Iraq were threatened, Turkey would not hesitate to intervene. This last part of the statement looks more aimed at domestic public opinion, because such an eventuality is next to zero as Barzani will do everything possible not to give any additional pretext to any country, especially Turkey, to find an excuse to undo what he has achieved so far. On the other hand, it would be a major success for Turkey if it contained the situation without resorting to military measures.
All stakeholders, except Israel, are more or less competing to emphasize the territorial integrity of Iraq, which implies that they oppose the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, but there is also a widespread mutual lack of trust. Turkey has misgivings about the genuineness of other stakeholders’ attitude. It feels they may eventually find a way to reach an understanding with the Kurds and leave Turkey out in the cold as the only country that could not normalize its relations with the KRG or independent Kurdistan. If the relations remain tense, Turkey will suffer more economic losses than almost all countries except Iraq. Turkish construction, trading and retail companies are very active in Iraqi Kurdistan. Oil is the most important source of revenue for Kurds and the bulk of it is exported through a pipeline that ends in Turkey. In the past, Ankara made this pipeline available to the KRG despite strong objections from Baghdad. If Turkey closes its borders, it will be cut off from both the KRG and Iraq. The latter is Turkey’s second biggest export market.
Ankara has more to lose than the other countries that oppose statehood for Iraqi Kurdistan, and its interests lie in a constructive relationship with Irbil.
Turkey and the KRG have many interdependent interests and this could be utilized to solve disputes. For instance, Turkey may use it to fight more efficiently the PKK terror organization nestled in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan. Despite firm promises, this cooperation remained ineffectual for decades. This time a more workable mechanism may be established and this will rid the KRG of a terror organization that it may not be able to control in the future.
Second, the city of Kirkuk is a disputed area, according to article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. The last unbiased population census in Iraq was in 1958. After that, an Arabization campaign conducted by Saddam Hussein changed the ethnic composition of the city. After Saddam’s fall, Kurdish authorities brought Kurds from elsewhere and resettled them in Kirkuk, claiming they were Kurds expelled from their homes by Saddam. Therefore Kirkuk’s ethnic composition has undergone two major changes. Turkey may negotiate a fair compromise with the KRG to eliminate the negative effects of the forced emigration and the resettlement of Kurds, to bring the ethnic composition of the city as close as possible to its original status. This will solve the outstanding disputed territories issue as well.
The referendum offers Turkey and the KRG both risks and opportunities. All options are on the table. It is up to the leaders to decide which one to take.