Iraqi Kurds defied all odds, international calls to delay the vote and threats from their neighbors, to decide their future in Monday’s independence referendum.
On Wednesday, Kurdish Election Commission approved results: more than 92 percent of Kurds voted for secession from Iraq.
But the most challenging part of the Kurdish struggle for independence has just started.
Iran and Turkey swiftly moved along with Baghdad to impose flight bans from and to airports in the Kurdish cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. They have also considered military response to blunt Kurds’ drive for full-fledged independence.
On Wednesday, the Iraqi Parliament gave a mandate to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send troops to the disputed oil-rich region of Kirkuk.
In its turn, Ankara has threatened to impose severe sanctions against Kurdistan. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also stated that a sweeping military action could take place unannounced at “any night.”
In addition, he reminded Kurdish authorities that Turkey controls the tap for the oil flow from northern Iraq to other countries. Oil is the key source of revenue for the flagging economy of the region.
“We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, it is over,” Mr. Erdogan said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told local media on Tuesday that Ankara would evaluate response requests from Baghdad.
“Everything, including a joint operation, is on the table,” he said.
Minister’s remarks dovetail with an ongoing joint military drill conducted by the Turkish security forces and Iraqi troops in Habur near the border with Kurdistan.
Mr. Erdogan does not need to turn to a military action to address the situation with Iraqi Kurdistan, Dr. Dylan O’Driscoll, a researcher at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) at the University of Manchester, told The Globe Post.
“The KRI [Kurdistan Region of Iraq] depends on Turkey for exporting oil and on Iran, and Turkey to import basic necessities, as their economy is far from self-sufficient,” he said.
Kamal Chomani, a nonresident fellow at Washington, D.C.-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told The Globe Post that if Turkey takes the actions they have announced, Kurdistan will not be able to survive and the region’s independence will be short-lived.
“If Turkey holds oil exports, closes borders, even if Kurdistan region announces its independence, I don’t think it will survive even six months. Kurdistan region is already in a huge economic crisis with $20 billions of debt,” he said, elaborating on the challenges the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) faces.
To date, Kurdish authorities’ response has been measured.
KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said the pipeline agreement with Turkey was designed to last 50 years and any shutdown would mean violation of the terms of the deal.
“Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani’s messages to Turkey were meaningful in this regard. Masoud Barzani himself has refrained from answering President Erdogan’s threats so far which means KRG wants an open door with Turkey and doesn’t want to reach a deadlock. Given Iraq is being led by a pro-Iranian government, KRG might need to bear for some time the harsh Turkish rhetoric,” Dana Nawzar Jaf, a Chevening Scholar at Durham University in the UK, told The Globe Post.
The vote of the Iraqi Kurds for full-fledged independence has exposed challenges and dilemmas that Turkey faces, creating a conundrum for the country’s leadership. However, how far Turkey will choose to go with its response remains a wide-open question.
On Tuesday, the Turkish government told KRG representative in Ankara, who returned to the Kurdistan Region after a diplomatic notification to do so, not to come back to Turkey. However, a complete breakdown of ties with KRG would be a challenge for Turkish authorities.
Taking on Mr. Barzani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who are considered Turkey’s allies against PKK in northern Iraq, would dismantle Ankara’s security architecture to contain the insurgent group.
“Turkey has the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) problem and it is facing another challenge from Syrian YPG which makes it difficult for Erdogan to give up on KRG totally… Kurds don’t have many friends to lose any, but the same is true for Mr. Erdogan who is still recovering from policy failures internally and externally,” Mr. Jaf said.
“Turkey doesn’t want the collapse of KRG and a dominance of the pro-Iranian government unless there are huge concessions by made Iran, especially in Syria. However, Turkey may lean toward supporting a stronger Iraqi control over the disputed areas especially Kirkuk,” he added.
Confusion over the official Turkish response has become noticeable when Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci ruled out placing economic sanctions against the Kurdistan region.
On Wednesday, the minister said such threats are misplaced and detrimental to Turkey’s interests. When reporters reminded him of Mr. Erdogan’s sanctions comments, he tried to refine his remarks.
The blockade would hit hard the region’s economy, which is largely dependent on Turkey. Thousands of Turkish companies operate in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Mr. Chomani said Kurdish people “learned to experience new lifestyle” and do not want to lose welfare and economic prosperity that they acquired in the past decade thanks to the engagement with the international economy. He noted that the region was self-sufficient in the 1990s, and people’s expectations were lower, but now the situation is different.
“Next two to three years will be so difficult for all people to be able to survive. It is not like the 1990s,” he said.
According to Mr. Chomani, Turkey’s intervention in the Kurdistan region would be costly for both sides. He noted, however, that Iraq and Iran could agree to a Turkish operation. Even international community may not be that concerned, if Turkey interferes in the region, he said noting that an operation against the PKK could be used as an excuse.
Until recently, President Erdogan had cultivated a cordial rapport with Mr. Barzani. The relationship found its expression in flourishing ties in many areas.
“Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Barzani used to be very good friends up until June. When Mr. Barzani decided to hold the referendum, Turkey’s initial reaction was a mixture of friendly advice and silence. This was interpreted by many in the pro-KDP media as a green light for Kurdish referendum,” Mr. Jaf said.
“But it was not the case. Turkey’s stance has grown harder since August and President Erdogan reached a level to personally insult Mr. Barzani which implied the seriousness of the situation,” he added.
Mr. O’Driscoll noted that President Erdogan “has built his reputation on being tough against opposition and following his own path regardless of International objections.”
“He is therefore likely to act, but he will have to take the war with Syria on Turkey’s other border and the country’s economic position into account before taking any action,” he said.
Domestic Politics Complicates Ankara’s Response
Turkey’s political parties saw a rare moment of unification in the aftermath of the Kurdish referendum. Secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) put aside their differences and adopted a common stance.
Only pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP), which normally is skeptical of the Barzani administration, endorsed the self-determination right of Iraqi Kurds to decide their future.
HDP member Meral Bektas Danis slammed the Turkish government for what she called toxic anti-Kurdish rhetoric and war-mongering. The politician wondered how the three parties would seek votes from Turkish Kurds in the upcoming elections, given their stance toward the referendum.
Given the anti-referendum sentiment in Turkey and the surge in nationalist rhetoric that pushed President Erdogan and his government to the right, a moderate approach to the issue is less likely.
Turkey’s first Consul General to Erbil Aydin Selcen warned the Turkish government against overreaction. He urged Ankara to take Turkey’s own Kurdish population into consideration and seek reconciliation with the new political entity.
Mr. Chomani said support for the Kurdish referendum is a political nonstarter for the Turkish president, since it would cost him votes in the upcoming 2019 presidential elections.
“Because [of] any support for Kurdistan region, Mr. Erdogan or any political party in Turkey will hugely lose votes in Turkish areas. Supporting an independent state will not increase Erdogan’s votes in Kurdistan, southeast of Turkey because Kurdish people in Turkey already have their own political party, which opposes Masoud Barzani and KDP,” he said, addressing the complicated nature of political forces at play.