In Irbil, all eyes are on Washington after the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) independence referendum triggered severe reactions from Ankara, Tehran, and Baghdad. The US Department of State declared that the United States does not recognize the referendum and that “the vote and the results lack legitimacy.” Washington has perceived the KRG’s unilateral move as too risky before the Iraqi elections in 2018—which was reflected in its repeated warnings to Irbil of potential “consequences out of US control.” Presenting the referendum results as a fait accompli, the KRG now counts on US support. Given the KRG’s strong economic relations with Turkey, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s relative silence when the referendum was first announced a few months ago, Ankara’s introduction of harsh measures was especially surprising for the Kurdish leadership.
Notwithstanding its deep concerns, with 92 percent of the “yes” vote, the KRG seems to have achieved its foremost objective: the consolidation of power in the hands of President Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The KDP’s falling fortunes and alliance agreement of rival parties persuaded KRG officials to act urgently; to them, this was a political opportunity to unify the public around patriotic feelings. The Kurdish opposition’s initial response—including campaigns for a “No” vote in the Sulaymaniyah region—shifted to Barzani’s favor in light of increasingly heated aggression and racist slurs against Kurds in the region. In the final days of the campaign, support for Barzani and the referendum came not only from all opposition parties within Iraqi Kurdistan but also from rival regional Kurdish organizations such as the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). For the KRG, the future of disputed territories will remain as the most serious challenge. Although the referendum’s turnout was reported to be as high as 72 percent, disputed areas witnessed low participation rates—which led KRG officials to refrain from revealing district-by-district results for the referendum. In Kirkuk, for example, Arabs and Turkmens, who claim the city as their own, boycotted the voting and a curfew was declared to defuse ethnic tensions.
Turkey’s changing policy toward oil-rich Kirkuk was perhaps the most significant development in the past decade. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) discarded the Turkish generals’ containment policy toward Iraqi Kurdistan, and since 2007, has developed bilateral ties to export hydrocarbons to global markets bypassing Baghdad. Such a marriage of convenience enabled the KRG to become increasingly independent from Baghdad as well as Turkey and to meet its growing energy needs. The latest crisis after the referendum, therefore, puts Turkey at the core of dynamic politics that will, in the long run, define Iraq’s future.
Baghdad Can Do Little without Turkey’s Help
Issuing a thirteen-point resolution as a response to the referendum results, the Iraqi Parliament suggested taking extreme measures such as closing all borders with the KRG, cutting off its oil exports with the help of neighboring countries, demanding that all consulates close their missions in Kurdistan, taking military action in the disputed territories including Kirkuk, removing Kirkuk’s governor Najmiddin Karim by force, initiating legal steps against KRG President Masoud Barzani, and sacking federal employees who voted in the referendum. Baghdad had already declared its intention to shut down the KRG’s airspace to international flights and ordered Kurdish authorities to hand over the control of all airports, border checkpoints, and oil exports.
Baghdad’s punitive measures, however, largely depend on support from Ankara and Tehran. Thus far, both Turkey and Iran have strongly defended the central government. Turkey’s armed forces launched a joint military drill with Iraqi forces, running one hundred armored vehicles in Turkey’s border town of Silopi. Similarly, the Iraqi government announced joint military exercises with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the Iranian border. Tehran banned Iranian companies from transporting refined oil products to and from Iraqi Kurdistan, while Ankara considered crippling restrictions on oil trading via the Kirkuk pipeline. Iran and Turkey may increase their cooperation in supporting Baghdad after Erdoğan’s visit to Tehran on October 4th.
What will Turkey Do?
As a key player in the crisis resulting from the referendum, Turkey has turned out to be a wild card for KRG officials. Only a few weeks ago, after a critical meeting with KRG leader Barzani, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu ruled out the possibility of Turkish economic sanctions, adding that the referendum has “nothing to do with” strong bilateral trade relations. But Turkey’s President shocked Kurdish officials by accusing Barzani of committing a “betrayal”—saying that Ankara remained confident “until the last moment” that Barzani would avoid holding the referendum. Erdoĝan not only threatened to use military force but also sought to undermine Barzani’s legitimacy by claiming that the Kurdish leader’s administration “has a history with Mossad,” being “hand-in-hand together.”
Although Erdoğan’s initial threat included a complete economic embargo to “vanish” all the revenues of Iraqi Kurdistan, statements that followed from Ankara have signaled a relatively benign approach. Turkey’s Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci stated that trade relations will stay “business as usual,” and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim affirmed that Turkey would take certain punitive measures against the KRG but not punish civilians.
Behind Turkey’s tough response are several dynamics at play. First, Ankara knows that the referendum is not the end but in fact the start of a long and difficult negotiation over oil-rich Kirkuk, the city where Turkey plans to protect the Turkmen and Arab populations as well as its own financial interests. Thus, Turkey’s punitive measures are aimed at increasing leverage over the KRG at the negotiating table. After meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan said that the KRG must be prevented from “bigger mistakes” following the referendum “mistake.”
Second, Turkey’s domestic dynamics push Erdoğan to employ a nationalist discourse that would satisfy his shrinking voter base. In the past few years, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has forged a strong alliance with the Turkish Nationalist Action Party (MHP), especially after the derailment of the Kurdish peace process in 2015. The 2016 coup attempt and ensuing overhaul of Turkey’s state bureaucracy enabled the rise of a Eurasianist elite, an anti-Kurdish group that strongly favors an alliance with Russia and Iran, to seize significant positions. In the past decade, Turkey sought to decrease its dependence on Iran and Russia for crude oil and natural gas thanks to its new connection with Iraqi Kurdistan—which was taboo to the old Kemalist military elite in Turkey. Sharing the Kemalist vision, however, Eurasianists now push to reverse the dynamics.
Finally, to assuage Turkey’s worsening relations with the United States over the Syrian Kurds, Washington has offered promises to the Turkish government for more support in Iraq. As Ankara’s cooperation is critical to US interests after the referendum, Erdoğan aims to maximize its benefits as a tough negotiator. Erdoğan faces a long list of demands from the Trump Administration indeed, ranging from issues related to Syria’s Kurds to the US lawsuit against gold-trader Reza Zarrab, which has now reached Turkish government echelons.
Turkey’s potential economic warnings to Iraqi Kurdistan, however, are a double-edged sword. Iraqi Kurdistan is Turkey’s third largest export market, with a trade volume of $8 billion annually, and the second largest market for contractors with projects totaling about $5 billion annually. If Ankara takes extreme measures such as closing the Habur border crossing, this may have a crippling effect on the economy of Turkey’s Kurdish southeast region. Such an outcome, therefore, would not only influence the increasingly fragile Turkish economy but also directly hurt Turkey’s millions of Kurds—whose votes swing between Erdoğan’s AKP and pro-Kurdish parties. To be sure, economic stability is a key factor in their decisions. Despite playing the Turkish nationalism card for the upcoming 2019 elections—which will usher Turkey’s new presidential system—Erdoğan would never risk losing millions of Kurdish conservative votes for his party.
Another factor that limits Turkey’s options is strategic realities. Weakening Barzani’s KDP would empower Kurdish opposition parties that would prefer Iran over Turkey as a regional partner. More importantly, the KDP is the only Kurdish regional challenger to Turkey’s nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Competition between the two groups goes far back to the 1990s when they engaged in open armed struggle. Thus, Turkey’s punishment of the KDP will only expand the PKK’s influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, especially in Sinjar where KDP-PKK rivalry is at its peak. Although PKK leaders initially expressed their distaste for Barzani’s referendum idea, they chose to become silent—some were even supportive—when Ankara’s reaction to the KRG gradually increased in tone.
The PKK may also extend its influence in Turkey’s restive southeast if Erdoğan takes extreme measures against the KRG, mentioning such steps as an all-out war against all Kurds. Erdoğan may have learned from his self-defeating policy in the Kobane crisis when, in September 2014, the Islamic State (IS) laid siege to the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane at Turkey’s border. The Turkish government’s apathy for Kurdish civilians did not only pave the way for US-YPG cooperation but also unified competing Kurdish groups around ethnic aspirations against Turkey.
Now, given that Turkey would like to admonish Kurdish authorities, it is reasonable to expect that Ankara may freeze the oil flow from Kirkuk or transfer custodianship rights over KRG oil to Baghdad for a temporary period. For a few weeks, Turkey may even go further, closing the Habur border crossing until reaching a deal with the KRG leadership. Yet, in the long run, Turkey would not pursue the path of punishing the KRG financially, as it would be harmful at home.
Washington’s Options to Solve the Deadlock
The role of the United States is most critical in preventing yet another crisis in Iraq. Unless Washington immediately acts to ease tensions, an unpredictable environment of mistrust may cause irreversible outcomes. A delicate diplomatic leadership to bring parties to the negotiating table to decide the future of Kirkuk and disputed territories will be a serious test for the Trump Administration. Washington should consider taking the following steps:
1. Focus on De-escalation First
All the leaders involved in the crisis—Erdoğan, Abadi, and Barzani—face domestic challenges at home which drive them toward nationalist populism. Thus, the United States must focus on de-escalation of public exchanges among leaders. Instead of issuing public statements, Washington should pursue in-person backdoor diplomacy with all parties in the dispute.
2. Reframe Iraq’s Elections as an Opportunity and not a Threat
Before the referendum, the KRG leadership perceived Iraq’s upcoming elections in April 2018 as a threat. Washington should work to establish a platform after the elections that could constitute a base for long-term negotiations among disputed parties. Both Washington’s and Ankara’s favorite candidate in the elections, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, needs Kurdish parliamentarians’ support while being careful to avoid appearing as weak and compromising in Iraqi public perception. Thus, Abadi may be helpful in establishing channels of dialogue for de-securitization, starting with the issues of airspace control and Kirkuk’s volatile atmosphere. For such constructive steps, however, Washington should urge Barzani to help save Abadi’s credibility, which will be under attack by the leaders of the Popular Mobilization Forces who are vying for the premiership in Iraq.
3. Get Erdoğan on Board
Washington’s relations with the Syrian Kurdish YPG have been a strong driver behind Turkey’s turn to Russia and Iran. Erdoğan’s recent meeting with Putin after the referendum as well as Russia’s interests in KRG oil fields should be carefully evaluated. The United States should not allow Putin to exploit the current crisis over the Kurdistan referendum. In this regard, Washington needs to fulfill its early promise of cooperation with Ankara against the PKK in Iraq.
4. Craft a Serious Road Map
Resolution of Iraq’s problems entails a long and painful process of public and private diplomacy with a clear road map for the post-IS era. Washington’s policy should focus on long-term issues, understanding that IS was a symptom and not the cause of Iraq’s problems. The referendum crisis is not likely to have an impact on military operations against IS; however, escalation of tensions between Irbil and Baghdad will potentially generate opportunities for violent extremist groups in the future. Thus, if Washington continues to neglect Sunni Arab grievances on the ground, there will be consequences for all Iraqis, including the Kurds.