Political fault lines running beneath the Middle East
Among those crises is the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) planned independence referendum in northern Iraq, scheduled for Sept. 25, despite strong international and regional opposition. While Turkey has warned against the referendum, it conducted military exercises near its border with Iraq.
To intimidate the KRG into backing down, Ankara deployed tanks and armored personnel carriers near the Habur border crossing, and said the number of troops along the border with Iraq could change depending on the circumstances. Ankara has also raised the possibility of sanctions against the KRG if it goes ahead with the referendum.
Despite this, KRG President Masoud Barzani remains determined to hold the referendum as scheduled. He is no ordinary regional leader for Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is close friends with Barzani, who has several times attended the congress of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara, and supported Erdogan in April’s constitutional referendum.
Four years ago, Barzani fully supported Ankara’s peace bid with Turkish Kurds during a rally with then-Prime Minister Erdogan in Diyarbakir in 2013. Barzani ended his speech in Turkish, saying: “Long live Turkish and Kurdish brotherhood. Long live peace. Long live freedom.”
Erdogan said the word “Kurdistan” for the first time as he greeted the people “of the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.” No Turkish president or prime minister had dared do so before. Barzani and Erdogan have often adopted similar stances on regional issues, and Ankara and the KRG enjoy good diplomatic and economic ties, with several energy deals inked. Both sides have benefited greatly from this relationship.
Iraqi Kurds have been in charge of their own affairs since the 1990s, running a relatively prosperous region. They have their own army, pursue their own foreign policy, and are likely to realize their aspirations for independence.
KRG President Masoud Barzani is no ordinary regional leader for Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is close friends with Barzani, who has several times attended the congress of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara, and supported Erdogan in April’s constitutional referendum.
The economically strong and politically stable KRG has long been preparing for this. It already independently exports crude oil via Turkey, despite opposition from Baghdad. Turkish companies have helped build the KRG’s infrastructure, including an airport in Irbil, and more than 1,000 of them operate from the autonomous region.
But Barzani’s determination to push ahead with the referendum is testing this strong relationship. Ankara, which considers the KRG an asset, is rightfully concerned by the prospect of a regional domino effect from the referendum. Turkey does not actually oppose independence, but rather the referendum’s timing amid critical regional developments.
Barzani’s determination, despite Turkey’s concerns and warnings, can only be explained by tacit support from international actors. But given that in international relations there are no permanent allies or enemies, the KRG should not rely on those actors at Turkey’s expense.
Another issue regarding the referendum is the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which is among the contested areas where the vote is planned. The KRG deems the oil under the areas it controls as essential to consolidating Kurdish independence.
If the referendum goes ahead, Ankara could consider the vote symbolic rather than binding, expel KRG representatives, halt flights, reduce energy exports and limit dialogue. Even if the vote takes place, its aim is unlikely to be realized without Turkish support.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz