Hours before the results of the Kurdish referendum were to be announced, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, issued a stern warning to the Kurdish regional government in Iraq. The region, according to him, would soon be enveloped in the flames of an “ethnic war” if the push for full independence was not withdrawn. This is consistent with Ankara’s standpoint as well as that of Iran and Iraq on the issue of an independent Kurdish state — or three out of the four countries’ border regions that the Kurds are sandwiched between.
Such territorial oppression, coupled with internal strife, has deprived the Kurds of autonomy for centuries. Turkey has bitter memories of the uprisings that the Kurdish people carried out against it between 1925 and 1935. This in turn limited both the territorial ambitions and foreign policy of Turkey. At the heart of its opposition to Kurdish statehood, however, is the real fear that its own sizeable Kurdish population would act up if the Iraq vote is endorsed universally.
At the moment, Erdogan is confident that no country, apart from Israel, would support the move. His confidence seems a bit misplaced because though the Syrian government has opposed the Iraq vote, it has already signalled its willingness to discuss autonomy for ethnic Kurds in Syria. Damascus of course is motivated by the lead role played by Syrian Kurds in the struggle against Islamic State militants.
Ankara plans to use all options from economic sanctions to military measures to counter the Kurdish move. Ground troops and airspace and border closures are part of the measures being considered. Iraq is also alarmed at the prospect. Lawmakers have called for the deployment of troops in northern Iraq to ward off challenges to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq. At this stage Baghdad needs to exercise extreme caution in dealing with the referendum crisis.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 27th, 2017.