Risky Referendum in Iraq

Risky Referendum in Iraq
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The issue of the referendum in Northern Iraq is not simply an ethnic matter. The main point that should clearly be understood is about the complications that could spread through the Middle East as a result of the quick-tempered decision made by a leader with a 2.5 million base. Kirkuk is a blasting point in this picture.

All the cheer and the expectations of the people in the region, as a result of the developments known as the Arab Spring, have been replaced by disappointment and pessimism in recent times. In particular the transformation of the Syrian Revolution into a civil war and the facedown of several actors have led to the bloodiest massacres the Middle East has ever witnessed. Moreover, while historical catastrophes, such as the Crusades and Mongol invasions were carried out by outsiders to the region, in the current situation, so to speak, there are no Middle Eastern actors who have not shed their neighbor’s blood.

As the Syrian war comes to an end –without a winner as was expected- and the post-war scenarios are currently being voiced, the indication of another crisis pops up as the Regional Government in Northern Iraq decides to go for an “independence referendum”. This action might lead to an increase in tension and even risks of armed clashes.

There is a long history to the Regional Government’s longing for independence led by Masoud Barzani, and a number of the Iraqi Kurdish leaders believe that the domestic and regional conditions are suitable for the referendum. From the perspective of a nation-state ideal and from where Barzani stands, there cannot be many excuses to stand against the referendum. In the last instance, a nation which has been involved in a struggle for independence for almost a century wants to determine its own fate and makes a step to realize that via a referendum which is accepted as a peaceful and legal means for by the whole world.

Reaction to “Untimely Step” by the US

At this time, several countries have clearly taken their positions regarding the referendum. While Turkey and Iran find the referendum unacceptable, Israel and Jordan have expressed their support for the referendum and an independent Kurdistan. In the near future Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates are also expected to express their support for the aforementioned formation. While the US and Russia do not stand against the idea of a referendum, they say it is not the best timing for it. It is understood that the current priority for the U.S. is the consolidation of a PKK state in Syria and its protection from the attacks of the Syrian regime and Turkey. It can be thought that the “untimely” steps of Barzani frustrate Washington at a time when she is trying to diminish the inter-factional divisions which are hampering U.S. regional policies.

It is necessary to have a closer look at the positions of Turkey and Iran as influential powers in the region. Apparently, as was seen in the case of the Qatar crisis, it is hard to carry out a structural change in the region when the two powers stand side by side. In the current context both countries perceive the issue as a domestic political matter rather than an issue of foreign policy. On the one hand the foundation of the first and the sole independent Kurdish state (Mahabad Republic) within the borders of Iran even though it only survived a year, in addition to the existence of a highly politicized and mobilized Kurdish population in the country,  and on the other hand the presence of an armed insurrection in Turkey with an intense ethnic discourse for almost 40 years, lead both countries to approach the issue from a national security perspective and deliver sensitive reactions. Another underlying reason for Turkey’s harsh reaction to the Northern-Iraqi referendum is the concerted efforts of her so-called-allies to build a PKK state in Northern Syria. In the event of any approval to the referendum in Irbil, Ankara believes this will be a model for PYD.

As is well-known, Turkey and the Regional Government have had improving political and economic relations in the recent years and the pro-referendum groups suppose that Turkey will not risk those relations for such a reason. However, having said this apparently it is not that simple. First of all, the improved state of relations with Barzani does not mean much in terms of long-term interstate relations. Factors such as the advanced age of Barzani, his statement that he will not be a presidential candidate the next term, the existence of influential powerful groups in the parliament such as Goran and Kurdistan Patriots’ Union as well as the possibilities of PKK making a fait accompli by seizing of power with the support of international powers, all stand as possibilities that Turkey can by no means neglect.

A Matter of National Security

In this regard it is possible to say that discourses highly voiced in the Turkish media such as the “well-improved relations with Barzani administration” and “economic interests” can be considered to be of secondary importance. As a matter of fact, the statement of President Erdoğan such as “when it is a matter of national security, we do not care about money” is apparently a message to some actors in the region who consider money as the sole problem-solver as well as to the Regional Government. In the same vein, it is voiced that Turkey has made a wrong decision by pointing out that some Iraqi groups who have rough relations with Ankara do share the same position with her in the case of the referendum. The voicing of such ideas by particular circles do indicate that necessary lessons were not taken from the grievous past mistakes. Unfortunately, as we do see in some cases, the consequences of these policies and their heavy costs cannot be rid by a single article.

Therefore the discussion should be carried out on the correct ground and the issue should be discussed beyond the political and legalistic aspects such as who is right or wrong. Clearly one should not miss the fact that the possible consequences of the issue would have bigger consequences than who is right or wrong.

Kirkuk As a Possible Center of Clash

Unfortunately, there are indications that a new possibility of clashes is not far ahead. If we do consider the threats of Hashd Al Shaabi groups seriously, one would understand the danger of a Kirkuk-centered clash making its way to a much wider area. Regardless of their sectarian differences, Arabs’ and Turkomans’ standing against the decision of the Barzani administration in the case of Kirkuk appears to be an important nuance. The Turkoman issue is an important matter for Turkey and it is witnessed for the first time that diverse Turkoman groups agree on an issue. Ankara who has been pressurizing Turkomans to unite for years is aware of the fact that she should come up with a proper reply when the other side chants they are united and it is Turkey’s turn now.

The issue might also play a role in consolidating the Arab nationalism and easing the sectarian divisions. Neither Sunni nor Shiite Arab leaders would not want to take place in history as those who allowed Kirkuk to be accepted as a Kurdish city. On the other hand Barzani’s delivering his harshest referendum statement via Kirkuk; neither independence nor another region and his saying that “every single Kurd is ready to die for Kirkuk” reveals the sensitivity of the issue. Nonetheless, the statement of Al-Muhandis, one of the Hashd Al Shaabi commanders, that the referendum can be held in cities other than Kirkuk, and they are ready to use force to defend the city, demonstrates that the probability of a clash is quite high.

Turkey’s Straight Answer

Until now, Turkey has clearly revealed her anti-referendum stance at different levels; the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed that the matter comes at a cost by bending the prudent language it has come to use and both the President and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have delivered much stronger and explicit messages. The main point that should clearly be understood is rather about the complications that could spread all over the Middle East as a result of the quick-tempered decision made by a leader with only a 2.5 million base. As the issue is not an ethnic matter, one cannot speak of mutual exclusion or clear alliances. It is of no doubt that Iran and Turkey’s deployment of economic arms would further deteriorate the already paralyzed economic situation in the region. Therefore, the probable cost that Turkey talks about is an important matter and the further details would probably be revealed in the decisions of the National Security Council on September 22. One of the factors that Turkey should consider while pressurizing the Regional Administration is that Barzani might become fully engaged to Israel if he loses all his hopes about the region. Turkey should prevent this. The other thing is that Turkey should prevent Barzani’s losing his position if the crisis turns into a clash. Apparently, upholding these factors particularly on the grounds of a clash would be challenging. There are considerable responsibilities to each one to prevent the region from falling into a lose-lose downward spiral.

This article was first published in Yeni Şafak on September 21, 2017.