Ankara’s choices after the Kurdish referendum

Originally published in the Greek weekly newspaper “Paraskinio”, issue 599, p. 19, on Oct. 7, 2017

The results of the referendum on the secession of Iraqi Kurdistan from the central government of Baghdad have shown that 93% of the voters approve it. This development has been seen by most regional and international powers as a negative step in the Middle East stability, which suffers from a period of popular and religious wars, with Turkey being the most feared of its consequences. Turkey, which has threatened and pledged to step up its military action, is now facing a difficult test to determine its next moves.

The options put forward by Turkish officials and Erdoğan are based on the military threat, as shown by the extensive military exercises that took place over the last two weeks on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan. If Ankara proceeds to direct military action, it will open up war on all sides. The Kurds in the northern part of Syria and northern Iran will not be left untouched, while the Kurds within Turkey, which account for 20% of the population, will also consider a war against it. Such a move would be disastrous and lead to the end of Turkey as it is today. The second option for Ankara is financial exclusion. But this will also affect Turkey, as revenues from Turkish exports to Erbil are estimated at two billion dollars per year. Also, such a step will be a threat to the contracts signed between Iraqi Kurdistan and Russian companies Rosneft and Gazprom and are estimated at about eight billion dollars, and therefore Ankara, which has improved its relations with Moscow recently, will again face the Russian rage. Therefore, this choice is not possible either.

A Turkish official assured me that the Turkish government and especially Erdoğan are well aware that their choices are very limited. However, the lack of a response will have a more serious impact and may send the wrong message to the Kurds of Turkey. So Turkey is obliged to answer. The answer to my question as to how to respond was that Ankara started moving through restrictions on Erbil by banning flights from Turkey to the airports of Erbil and crossing the border between the two countries. Ankara will also take two more steps in co-operation with Baghdad and Tehran. The first concerns the diplomatic limitation of Iraqi Kurdistan by imposing traveling exclusion of Kurdish officials internationally and pressure to prevent acceptance of the results of the referendum and recognition as an independent state from other countries. The second step is to provide support to Baghdad for a military move on the border with southern Kurdistan, especially in the city of Kirkuk of great strategic importance, and for which it has long competed with Erbil. With this move, Ankara increases military strikes at PKK positions on its south-eastern border.

In conclusion, the Erbil government knew that the countries in the region would try to prevent Kurdish independence and show the Kurds’ failure to establish their own state. The secret visit of Barzani to Israel, a few days before the referendum, has catalyzed its conduct. Israel, which has a strong lobby in Washington and maintains privileged relations with Russia and many European countries, is in a position, in one way or another, to provide protection to Erbil’s administration. Therefore, the next move of its opponents, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, will determine where the region will move in general, and if secession becomes a reality without being possible to turn the clock back.