Author: Natig NAZIMOGLU
An event that took place in the turbulent Middle East has a potential to transform the region into a new hotbed of bloody armed confrontation. Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq expressed its desire for independence in a referendum. The territorial integrity of Iraq is under threat.
Problems for the "independent" Erbil
On September 25, over 90% of 3.44 million voters supported the independence of the Kurdish autonomy. Interestingly, the voters were not only the residents of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, the provinces officially recognized as part of the autonomy, but also from the provinces outside the autonomy, in particular Kirkuk, Ninawa, and Salahaddin. In addition, the Kurds living outside Iraq were able to vote online. Either way, the subtleties of the voting procedure are not as important as the very fact of launching the process of disintegration of Iraqi unity. The question is whether Baghdad and the regional powers interested in preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq can counter this process.
Baghdad denounced the legitimacy of the referendum and signaled its unwillingness to enter into negotiations with the government of the Kurdish autonomy after the voting. The Iraqi parliament voted for the dismissal of all Kurdish officials who participated in the referendum, demanded that Baghdad is transferred the control over the border of the Kurdish autonomy with neighboring countries, and appealed to the world community to conduct all negotiations on oil deals only with the central Iraqi government.
In addition, the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haydar al-Abadi, demanded that if the Kurdish autonomy did not hand over the controlled airports and border posts to the central government within 72 hours, his government would close the borders and airspace. In response, the head of the Kurdish autonomy, Massoud Barzani, called upon Baghdad to enter into a dialogue and "stop threats against Kurdistan caused by the referendum."
Meanwhile, the Arab states, the UN and several Western countries made official statements against the referendum. Russia supports the territorial integrity of Iraq and invites the parties to dialogue to solve the "internal Iraqi conflict". But the referendum sparked the strongest reaction in Turkey and Iran.
For Iran, the actions of the Barzani government are "unlawful" and "undermine the sovereignty and national integrity of Iraq." The Iranian authorities blocked a section of the border with the Kurdish autonomy and closed the airspace in the border areas, canceling all flights to the cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.
Turkey describes the Kurdish referendum as "separatist" and "endangering peace and stability not only in Iraq, but throughout the region." Ankara is determined to prevent the results of the referendum. One of the signs of this is the Turkish warning addressed to the world community about the inadmissibility of attempts to recognize the results of the voting. Turkey sends special signals to Israel, which supported explicitly the desire of the Kurdish autonomy to gain independence and to withdraw from Iraq. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan therefore asked the following questions: "Who did support the referendum? Who will recognize the results? Only Israel. So what? Dozens of countries have recognized Kosovo, and it has not yet been able to become a state. What will the recognition of Israel mean? Do you think that they held a referendum and did well?"
Erdogan threatened the Kurdish autonomy with hunger and embargo. "As soon as we apply sanctions, we will shut the oil valve and the end will begin. This will cease all the profits. Once the trucks stop traveling to northern Iraq, they will have nothing to eat. How is Israel going to supply them something? Let them try. "
It should be noted that the Kurdish autonomy, like Iraq in general, sustains its livelihood mainly due to oil exports. Until 2014, Baghdad transferred about $12 billion to Erbil, which was almost 80% of the budget of the Kurdish autonomy. But then, because of growing contradictions over the sale of oil, the Iraqi government stopped funding the autonomy, which had significant social consequences. The Barzani government did not take long to start the sales of hydrocarbons independently. Despite the protests of Baghdad, Erbil launched the transportation of "Kurdish" oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
Incidentally, Turkey had nothing against this policy. On the contrary, over the past few years, Ankara has maintained quite a favorable relationship with Erbil and even managed to persuade Barzani to renounce the terrorist organization PKK (Workers' Party of Kurdistan). However, Ankara has expressed strong opposition to the idea of the withdrawal of the Kurdish autonomy from Iraq, as it believed this be a real threat to the security of the Turkish state. It is too obvious that the sovereignty of the Iraqi Kurds will help to unite the entire Kurdish movement, which means that the extremist forces fighting against Turkey will be even more active. And it's not just about PKK, but also about the Party’s branches, such as the organizations of the Syrian Kurds, who actually had acted as another terrorist front against Ankara.
It is not surprising that Erdogan accused Masoud Barzani of treason because of his decision to hold a referendum "without any consultations". "Until the very last moment, we did not expect Barzani to make such a mistake as holding a referendum. Apparently, we were mistaken," said the Turkish President.
Obviously, Ankara’s threats to block the Iraqi Kurdistan economically mean something. After all, Turkey can impose a blockade on Kurdish autonomy in close cooperation with Iran considering Tehran's stance on this issue. And the consequences of this action may turn out to be deplorable for Erbil not only because of the "Kurdish" oil mainly imported by Turkey. It is also about the food sector of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is maintained mainly by Turkey and Iran. Therefore, as soon as these states close the borders, the Kurdish economy will face serious problems, especially due to its landlocked position.
Erdogan has "many options"
Yet another aspect of Turkish dissatisfaction with the Kurdish referendum can pose serious consequences for the security of the Middle East. Erdogan made it clear that along with economic measures Ankara can use military methods of pressure on Erbil. "We have many options, and all of them are being considered," admitted the Turkish president, assuming the likelihood of military operations (both air and land) on the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In addition, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that Ankara was ready to support Baghdad to ensure the territorial integrity of Iraq upon the request of Iraqi authorities. It is likely that the Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim discussed this issue during his telephone conversation with Iraqi counterpart Haidar al-Abadi on September 27. Cavusoglu stressed the threat posed by the Kurds to ethnic Turkmans in northern Iraq, which will be regarded by Turkey as a casus belli for a military operation.
Ankara has repeatedly stated that it did not recognize Kirkuk as a Kurdish city and province, as it is predominantly populated by Turkomans. Erdogan has strongly condemned Erbil's political claims to Kirkuk and demanded the Kurdish flag be brought down in the city. However, since the Iraqi Kurds have supported the withdrawal from Iraq, the security of Turkomans becomes instrumental for Turkey. Survival of the Turkoman population depends on Ankara's willingness to guarantee its protection.
It is noteworthy that the U.S. expressed dissatisfaction with Ankara's position, even though they condemned a unilateral Kurdish referendum that could "lead to destabilization of the situation in the region" and complicate the relations of the Kurdish authorities with the Iraqi government and neighboring states. The spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, Heather Nauert, stressed that Turkish government's statement, which says it is ready to support the territorial integrity of Iraq not in word but in deed, sounds like a threat.
Undoubtedly, Washington's stance on this issue once again convinces Ankara of world powers behind the "sovereignty" aspirations of Kurdish separatists. Under the existing circumstances around Iraqi Kurdistan, it is likely that the United States, which provides serious military and political support to the Kurdish forces both in Iraq and in Syria, will try to mitigate the consequences of possible Turkish and Iranian sanctions against Erbil by all possible means.
Barzani is ready to discuss "anything"
Meanwhile, apart from the dissatisfaction with Ankara's position and commitment to maintain "the relationship between the U.S. and the people of Iraqi Kurdistan unchanged", the statement of the U.S. State Department is particularly interesting in terms of its reference to the ongoing war against the so-called Islamic State (IS). Apparently, Washington is trying to smooth out the contradictions between its allies - Ankara and Erbil. On the other hand, the U.S. underlines the likelihood of misuse of the existing regional instability and discord by the IS militants.
In fact, the war against IS and the subsequent events have contributed significantly to the strengthening of the Kurdish element as one of the most instrumental actors in the antiterrorist struggle. That is why the Barzani government took a decisive step towards the sovereignty of the Kurdish autonomy after the victory over IS in Mosul, largely due to a legitimate status of Kurdish militia granted by the Iraqi government. This victory enhanced Baghdad's position throughout Iraq significantly. In fact, only the areas in the north of the country led by Barzani and his team remained uncontrolled by the Iraqi government. Apparently, it is the desire of the Barzani government to prevent the forthcoming advancement of Iraq to the north that explains why the referendum was held with such a haste. The leadership of the autonomy is afraid that Baghdad can restrict its political powers and prevent the official accession of regions, and particularly the oil-rich Kirkuk, illegally annexed by the Kurdish autonomy.
So, given that the inevitable consequences of economic blockade and external military-political pressure are quite obvious, does the Barzani government expect the independence of the Kurdish autonomy? Alternatively, is the referendum a political move aimed at obtaining international guarantees for the protection of the "disputed territories" controlled by Kurds, provided that the autonomy remains de facto an independent entity, but de jure in Iraq? Same as he expects to strengthen his personal power, which is especially important for Barzani, given that his repeatedly prolonged tenure as the head of the autonomy will expire soon?
In other words, perhaps the "nationwide" referendum was necessary for Barzani not so much to achieve real independence of the autonomy, but rather for concluding deals with the central Iraqi government. Hence, Barzani's persistent calls for a dialogue with Baghdad to achieve "joint benefits". "After September 25, we are ready to discuss with Baghdad the issues related to borders, oil, anything," said Barzani meaningfully.
If for Barzani, the independence is not a goal in itself, we can assume that Erbil will be able to avoid a military conflict with Baghdad and Ankara. Moreover, Turkish President Erdogan is also inclined to solve the problem "in a peaceful manner", expressing the hope that Turkey will not have to apply restrictive measures against the Iraqi Kurdistan. Therefore, the worst-case scenario, which may entail an endless cycle of disasters for the peoples of the region, is only possible if someone really wishes to launch a new bloody confrontation using the Kurdish issue as some sort of leverage against the traditional regional powers (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria).