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Ankara flexes its muscles ahead of Kurdish referendum

Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, front- center, and his deputies vote to extend a new mandate at the parliament during an extraordinary session, in Ankara, Turkey, on Saturday. (AP)
Turkey’s National Security Council and Cabinet convened on Friday to discuss possible steps to be taken in the aftermath of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum on Sept. 25.  
A statement after the meeting highlighted “the illegitimacy of the referendum” announced by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

“It was strongly emphasized that this step, which directly threatens Turkey’s national security, was a terrible mistake that threatens Iraq’s political unity and territorial integrity, as well as the peace, security and stability of the region,” the statement said. 

Following the Cabinet meeting, Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag told a news conference that “all options are on the table.”

At an extraordinary session on Saturday, Parliament mandated the government to deploy troops to Iraq and Syria for another year to protect Turkey’s national security against the possible breakup of either neighbor.

Since Monday, Turkey has been conducting a military drill along its border with Iraq, and on Saturday it deployed additional troops to the region.

Also, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Iraq issued on Sept. 21 a joint declaration to take coordinated countermeasures against Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. 

The Iraqi Army’s Chief of Staff Othman Al-Ghanmi arrived in Ankara on Saturday for talks with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar. 

Ankara “has given the necessary warning in a friendly way, but this hasn’t been heeded,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Saturday, criticizing the referendum as “adventurism” that threatens Turkey’s security. “Those who took this decision will pay the price.” 

There are regional concerns that the vote could have a domino effect by triggering separatist sentiment in other countries with significant Kurdish populations. 

For more than three decades, Turkey has been fighting a domestic Kurdish separatist insurgency, with more than 40,000 people killed so far.

On Saturday, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launched a rocket and mortar attack from Iraq, killing a Turkish soldier and a worker.

“Turkey, possessing NATO’s second-largest army, wants to use its options for intervention against all possibilities, including sectarian conflicts in the region,” Abdullah Agar, a security expert and retired special warfare and commando officer, told Arab News.

“Turkey’s priority is to resolve all problems regarding Iraq’s territorial integrity without violating its international and bilateral agreements,” he said.

“With the outcome of the referendum, Turkey will initiate all diplomatic, political, economic and, if necessary, military instruments.” In recent days, Turkey has deployed additional aircraft near the border with Iraq, Agar said. 

Ali Semin, a Middle East expert from Istanbul-based think tank Bilgesam, told Arab News: “Turkey has the military option, but it could also hurt the KRG economically and diplomatically.” 

He said Ankara “can close its consulate in Irbil and downgrade diplomatic relations with the KRG. If it closes the Habur border crossing, through which the KRG trades with the world, and if it halts oil exports from the region, Irbil will be suffocated.” 

Semin said Turkey will not immediately initiate a cross-border operation after the referendum. 

“If Iraq’s central government opts for military intervention against the KRG, Turkey can provide the Iraqi Army and security forces with logistical support,” he added. 

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