An Iraqi Kurdish man walks past a mural in the square in the citadel in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 26, 2017
The leaders of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan held referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan region on September 25, 2017 despite the strong opposition from the central government of Iraq and the international community. According to the results of the High Elections and Referendum Commission, the referendum passed with about 93 percent of votes. Among the various governments in the region, Iraq, Iran and Turkey showed a stronger reaction to the referendum, and even threatened Erbil with joint political and economic sanctions. Turkish leaders made tough statements at various levels about the holding and outcome of the referendum, but no effective action has been taken to block the pro-independence plans of the leaders of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. Even despite the Turkish leaders’ claims, trade relations, transportation routes and energy flows have not been disrupted. Despite these objections, Massoud Barzani’s resolve to hold a referendum on the independence is undoubtedly rooted in the satisfaction and behind-the-scenes plans of actors such as the United States and Turkey. Concerning the dramatic positions of the Turkish leaders, a few points are noteworthy about their willingness in the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in the southern neighborhood of their country.
1. With the considerable expansion of economic cooperation with Erbil in the areas of energy and trade relations, Ankara has assumed the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region economically independent from the central government of Baghdad. The economic and commercial infrastructures of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, especially over the past decade, have been strengthened by Turkey. Turkey is currently the most important trading partner and major importer of Iraqi Kurdistan energy. 1,500 Turkish companies annually export goods worth about $5.8 billion to Iraqi Kurdistan. As an example, in July 2015, Iraq exported 16 million barrels of oil to Ceyhan port in Turkey. At the same time, Iraqi Kurdistan exports around 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas each year to Turkey. The Turkish BOTAS company, after completing the project of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, announced the launch of a 185-kilometer pipeline from Sinop to Mardin. Turkish contractors also talk about the possibility of connecting Iraqi Kurdistan natural gas export lines to the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) in the near future.
2. Turkey at various times, especially with deepening internal crisis in Iraq after the rise of the ISIS through establishing military bases in the Kurdish territories of the country, and not paying attention to the demands of the central government of Baghdad to withdraw Turkish military forces from the national lands of Iraq, has severely weakened the independence and territorial sovereignty of Iraq. On the contrary, this issue has contributed to the increased capacities of territorial sovereignty of the Iraqi Kurdistan region Kurds, especially in controversial cities such as Kirkuk. Another issue worthy to mention here is the military-arms cooperation between Turkey and the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. Over the past years, many light weapons and defense systems have been provided by the Turkish Army, along with the United States and Germany, for Erbil. The Turkish Army has taken significant actions in training and equipping the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who have defined deterring against the military actions of the central government of Baghdad as their primary mission.
3. Turkey has been one of the most influential actors that has internationally recognized the independent political entity of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. Expanding its military-political cooperation with Erbil and exploiting the field capabilities of Peshmerga forces against the advances of the PYD Kurds in northern Syria and the PKK terrorist operations in the southeastern border, Ankara has assumed a political existence for Erbil independent from the central government of Iraq.
In such circumstances, an argument on maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and the threat from the Iraqi Kurdistan region in contrast to their territorial and political independence from the central government of Baghdad is meaningless. As I wrote in previous reports, the course of relations between Ankara and Erbil, especially in the past half a decade, shows that Turkey, despite its explicit opposition to the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, tends to implicitly accept an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. The autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region has increased its capability to declare its political existence as an independent Kurdish state, and Turkey has also accelerated the material dynamism of such a process. The main cause of fear for Turkey does not lie in the security implications of this independence and its impact on the domestic Kurdish politics, but in the uncertainties arising from the changing status quo in the future of the political and territorial structures of Iraq and its domino effect in the self-governing cantons of the Syrian Kurds. Turkey pursues a multi-level trans-security policy toward Iraqi Kurdistan region, whose domestic policy, especially the Kurdish issue at strategic level, has little impact on its relations with Iraqi Kurdistan.
At present, the Turkish government’s strong reaction to Iraqi Kurdish referendum can be understood based on the deadlock faced by the ruling party in its domestic politics. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) is forced to criticize the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum, because a large number of its electoral votes are provided by the Turkish nationalists who are highly sensitive to the Kurdish issue and the territorial integrity of Turkey. In the long run, an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq will provide more maneuvering space for Ankara against the Iraqi central government. An independent Kurdish state means a massive export market and a reliable source of energy, and it provides further action area for creating a balance against Iran’s influence in Iraq and the advances of the PYD Kurds in northern Syria. Ankara views the Iraqi Kurdistan as a buffer region against geopolitical uncertainties in southeastern region and the power struggle between regional and international actors in the future of Baghdad’s political developments. Turkey’s foreign policy and national security think-tank has come to the conclusion that the formation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq is inevitable, and Turkish approaches are also based on such a reality. Therefore, no considerable operational action against the process of the Iraqi Kurdistan independence is likely to take place by Ankara, and the reactions of the Turkish leaders are more dramatic.
© The International
Vali Golmohammadi, a PhD candidate of International Relations at Tarbiat Modares University, is the fellow at Center for Strategic Research.
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