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Iran and Turkey confronting Kurdish independence referendum

September 21, 2017 at 7:54 pm

Kurdish Referendum [Arabi21]

There is no doubt that the result of the referendum regarding the independence of the Kurdish region is a great risk on the part of the Kurds and their political leadership. All of the individuals, political forces and states who are and are not concerned in the issue have all put aside their own complex issues and problems and have focused on the upcoming referendum, which is being described as “Judgement Day”.  The exception to this is Israel, as it announced its welcome of the establishment of an independent Kurdish state for its own reasons.

Indeed, it is Judgement Day given the fact that everything in the region the Kurdish state will belong to, if it will be born after a difficult labour, will change. All of the relations between countries, alliances, the general mood in these countries’ societies, preconceptions that have been in place for a century, the potential and  horizons for the development of these countries and societies, i.e. everything.

Therefore, we see great resistance against the referendum that may grant the right to self-determination to a solid foundation of popular legitimacy. The so-far hypothetical objections can be divided into two categories: primary and secondary. The primary objection is based on a combination of ideology and national interests in its absolute and complete rejection of the idea of the region’s independence (or the Kurds’ right to self-determination) on principle. This is the position of the four regional countries’ governments: Iran, Iraq, Turkey and the Syrian regime, and it is supported by a public opinion with varying degrees of rigidity and inclusiveness.

Read: Iran, US intensify efforts to stop Kurdish referendum

As for the objections based on the problems caused by the independence of the region, they are legitimate objections related to the life of large numbers of people, and must be addressed with mutual rationalism, except when they are used to mask an undeclared ideological rejection of the idea of the Kurds; right to self-determination. In other words, the reality and legitimacy of problems regarding the demarcation of borders, the return of refugees and the rights of non-Kurdish social components is one thing, and using it as an excuse to reject the idea of an independent Kurdistan in its entirety is something completely different.

President of Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) Masoud Barzani during a meeting at the Saad Abdullah Palace Conference Centre in Erbil, Iraq on 6 September  2017. [Yunus Keleş/Anadolu Agency]

Now, to focus on the realities of establishing an independent Kurdish state, given the Kurdish leadership’s almost certain armament with referendum results in favour of independence, in a hostile environment, surrounded by governments that have declared their objection to this, accompanied by varying degrees of threats. In light of the statements made by these countries’ politicians, it is safe to say that Iran is the most severe in its objection to the establishment of an independent Kurdish state on its western border. Iran is especially against the Barzani leadership, which is historically linked to the Iranian Kurds, as Mulla Mustafa Barzani personally fought with the Iranian Kurds against Tehran’s imperial forces in the 1940’s. It seems that today’s Islamic Tehran is serious in its threat to close its borders in order to suffocate the new born state if it is destined to be born.

As for Erdogan’s Turkey, its position is more confusing than Iran’s given the special relations between Ankara and Irbil in recent years. In public statements, the Turkish leadership seems to be firmly against the independence of Kurdistan, like the Iranians. In his most recent statement regarding the referendum, Erdogan vowed to hold a UN Security Council meeting and another for the government to announce the final official position on the referendum and decide what practical measures could be taken. This threat suggests extreme decisions that some Turkish nationalists believe will reach the possible declaration of war. This was ruled out by Prime Minister Binali Yildirim when he said that wars are fought between two states, while the Kurdish region is a part of the Iraqi state. We can also understand from this statement that a war is unlikely regarding the referendum, but may be an actual possibility if the Kurdistan region becomes an independent state.

Without taking into consideration the statements that are usually issued for internal political considerations, the magnitude of mutual economic dependency between Kurds and Turkey is something that cannot be ignored when putting into place long-term strategies. Moreover, the strong Iranian objection to the independence, followed by the Baghdad central government’s position, may make Turkey the Kurds’ only friend after gaining independence and its only ground link to the world. This may put Turkey in an excellent position in its regional competition with Iran and even in its relations with the rest of the world, given the severe political isolation suffered by Ankara in recent years, especially its deteriorating relations with the Americans and Europeans.

Read more: Kurdish referendum set to plunge Iraq into existential crisis

Turkey’s only friend in its geographical surroundings is the Kurdish region after former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s famous policy of “zero problems with neighbours” failed miserably and Turkey has been linked to Russia in the context of the Astana path regarding Syria. Given its centuries-long historical experiences, Turkey is aware that a friendship with Russia is a friendship with a wolf, i.e. it cannot guarantee it long-term. Meanwhile, relations with Iran are a purely competitive relationship, with some mutual interests, but they cannot result in a strong permanent alliance.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a dinner hosted by TURKEN Foundation in New York, United States on 20 September, 2017 [Kayhan Özer/Anadolu Agency]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a dinner hosted by TURKEN Foundation in New York, United States on 20 September, 2017 [Kayhan Özer/Anadolu Agency]

The political alliance between Erdogan and leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, Devlet Bahceli, which resulted in the transformation of the parliamentary government into a presidential government, may last until the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, which Erdogan is counting on to prolong his extensive term. This concerned alliance requires Erdogan to appear to have a firm position against the Kurdish independence, while continuing his war against the PKK. However, this war seems to be without a political horizon, i.e. the impossible victory cannot be translated into political results unless the peaceful solution is revived. Erdogan requires the political assistance of Masoud Barzani to achieve this.

We can say that given this complex scene, Turkey will try hard to convince Barzani to postpone the referendum to an unspecified time. This will give Turkey time to arrange its internal political affairs in terms of the prolongation of the Justice and Development Party’s rule and Erdogan’s presidency. Meanwhile, Barzani’s insistence on conducting the referendum will back Erdogan into a difficult corner and will disturb all of his political calculations. However, if the referendum is conducted on the scheduled date, despite everything, it is likely that Turkey’s national interests will take priority and it will deal with the referendum’s results as the status quo and Kurdish-Turkish relations will develop into a long friendship based on mutual interests. This will reflective positively on the Turkish relations with the Kurds in Turkey.

There is no room to address the positions of the superpowers towards the referendum and independence in this article, but there is no doubt that the positions of the US, Russia and Europe will play a decisive role in the region’s chances of gaining its independence.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 21 September 2017

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.