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Caught between fires, will Barzani press ahead?

Despite warnings, intimidation and calls, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani carried out the independence referendum on Sept. 25. This was the last thing the already conflict-torn Middle East needed. Now, while there is a festive atmosphere in Iraqi Kurdistan, there are tensions with its neighbors Turkey, Iran and Iraq, which do not recognize the outcome.

Turkey
Ankara believes that the KRG has thrown itself into a fire by undertaking an unnecessary referendum. Turkey has several reasons to oppose it. First and foremost, Turkey has been fighting the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for more than three decades. Ankara fears the referendum will inflame separatism at home and further embolden the PKK.
The other concern is about further regional destabilization. Ankara wants Iraq’s territorial integrity to be preserved; it does not want the burden of a refugee influx in addition to the millions of Syrians Turkey already hosts. Turkey has agreed to closely coordinate steps against the KRG with Iran and Iraq. While the three countries have warned of military intervention if their national security is threatened, this option is unlikely, at least for now.

Iran
Kurdish relations with Tehran have often been tense since the 1979 Iranian revolution. But it seems Tehran’s anti-referendum stance will not go beyond rhetoric. If it does act, it will likely be via its proxies; this strategy, rather than direct intervention, has served Iran well regionally.
A fragmented Iraq is a nightmare scenario for Iran, because it will narrow its area of influence and encourage its own Kurdish minority, which is ready to revolt. In Iran’s northwest provinces, thousands of Kurds poured onto the streets to celebrate the referendum, ringing alarm bells in Tehran.
Established in 2003, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), a PKK offshoot in northwest Iran, unilaterally declared a cease-fire in 2011, but after a few years it resumed its armed activities. Although many issues, such as Syria and Iraq, have caused tensions between Ankara and Tehran in recent years, the referendum has brought them closer than ever.

Iraq, Syria
Baghdad has threatened an international air embargo on the KRG if it does not hand over control of its airports. Meanwhile, Baghdad said Turkey has agreed to deal with it exclusively over exports of Kurdish crude oil.
By contrast, Damascus said it is open to negotiating with Syrian Kurds over their demand for autonomy once Daesh is defeated, and Russia supports this stance. Turkey is already agitated that Kurds have pushed back Daesh in northern Syria to carve out a sphere of influence.

That no country in the region supports Kurdish independence other than Israel (which does so for its own strategic aims) means the referendum’s “yes” vote is unlikely to result in independence anytime soon.

Sinem Cengiz 


Russia, US
In failed countries, Russia seeks local collaborators to achieve its strategic aims. This is the case in Syria and Iraq, where it is pushing for greater Kurdish autonomy in both countries. While Moscow tacitly supports the Kurds — something Turkey has yet to criticize — America’s hesitant response to the referendum and its support for Syrian Kurds have raised eyebrows in Ankara.
That no country in the region supports Kurdish independence other than Israel (which does so for its own strategic aims) means the referendum’s “yes” vote is unlikely to result in independence anytime soon. Its sole aim was to bolster Barzani’s domestic position as the only Kurdish leader to take a step toward independence for the world’s largest stateless people. This poorly timed move has achieved this, but it has left him caught between fires.

• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.
Twitter: @SinemCngz