Independence referendum in the Iraqi Kurdistan: “Made in Turkey”
The results of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan hardly surprised anyone in terms of the victory of supporters of greater independence of the autonomous region from the central government in Baghdad. Despite loud statements and subsequent symbolic steps against the referendum, the Turkish government, through its focused policy of supporting Iraqi Kurdistan, contributed to the success of the Iraqi Kurds’ struggle for their political independence.
In a referendum on September 25, the bulletins printed in Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic and Assyrian languages asked one question: “Do you want the Kurdish region and the Kurdish territories outside of it to become an independent state?” Most answered “yes.” The final figures will be announced on September 28.
On the eve of the referendum, Ankara made it clear to the Kurds that it does not approve and even opposes plans for voting in the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan. So, on September 22, the National Security Council headed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the decision to hold a referendum poses a threat to the national security of Turkey. In the final statement of the Council, the leadership warned its Kurdish neighbors that, in the event of a vote, Ankara retains the right to take measures provided for by international treaties. If to read between the lines: Turkey hints at, allegedly, its right to introduce troops to restore the territorial unity of the Iraqi state.
The same day, at a meeting of the Council of Ministers of Turkey, the sanctions that the country can introduce against the rebellious Kurds in Iraq were discussed: the cessation of air traffic, the restriction of trade, the reduction of the volume of Kurdish oil delivered to the world markets through the Turkish territory, and sanctions against a number of firms related to the leadership Iraqi Kurdistan.
The leadership of the Iraqi Kurdistan did not start talking about plans to hold a referendum on independence yesterday. Public statements have sounded at least since 2014, but then the political crisis inside the autonomous region and the war against IGIL forced the Kurds to postpone the vote. Such an important decision was not taken in a hurry, and, moreover, could not be accepted by the Kurds without taking into account the opinions of the regional powers, above all Turkey, whose favors for many years depended on the fate of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is the long-term cooperation of Iraqi Kurds and Ankara that has instilled in the political elites of Kurdistan the confidence that the Kurds have a real opportunity to become independent, realizing the long-term aspiration of the whole people.
Turkey contributed to the strengthening of Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent region through mutually beneficial oil trade. Most of the income received by the Iraqi Kurdistan comes from the export of oil, which is delivered to world markets through the territory of Turkey through the pipeline. In addition, the Turkish leadership through a series of administrative measures has stimulated the Turkish business to invest in the region. According to recent reports, the volume of Turkish investments in Iraqi Kurdistan amounted to about $ 1 billion, in the region there are about 1500 Turkish firms. Through Kurdistan, the bulk of Turkey’s exports to Iraq (about $ 7 billion) passes.
Turkey is partly guilty of eroding Iraq’s sovereignty and weakening the central government in Baghdad. The above oil trade was carried out in violation of the Iraqi constitution. Turkey did not respond to the demands of the Iraqi leadership to direct revenues from the sale of oil to the federal budget, and not to the pockets of the autonomous Kurdistan. At the same time, the Turkish leadership in some cases openly demonstrated Iraq’s insolvency as an independent state. At the end of last year, a scandal erupted between Baghdad and Ankara about the status of Turkish military bases located on the territory of Iraq. The presence of the Turkish military had a vague legal status from the point of international law, and all the persistent requests of the government of Iraq to close the bases were ignored by Turkey. Ankara made concessions only after Iraq began to threaten to bring the matter to the discussions of the UN Security Council.
Finally, Turkey, in view of the growing military and political threats from international terrorism, has turned Iraqi Kurdistan into a wealthy political subject of international relations. Ankara not only invested heavily in training the military personnel of the Kurdish region, but also attracted the Iraqi Kurdistan to solve its political tasks outside Iraq: the Turks used the leadership of Kurdistan for a long time as a counterbalance to the political influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in eastern Turkey and Syria. The expansion of the diplomatic presence of the region was largely due to the support of Ankara.
Even if the Turkish leadership, as we see it, supports the course of the Iraqi Kurds for independence, it can not speak about it openly. In Turkey, any statement by the ruling party on supporting Iraqi Kurdistan can be compared to a political suicide. The nationalist electorate of the ruling Justice and Development Party headed by Erdogan, like most Turks, is opposed to any Kurdish ambitions. The growing wave of nationalism and the polarization of the Turkish society do not leave much space to the country’s leadership for maneuvering over the referendum issue. Thus it turns out that despite the long-standing policy of Turkey’s support to the course of the Iraqi Kurds for independence from Baghdad and their own involvement in the success of this quest, in the public discourse Turkish leadership is compelled to react extremely negatively to the voting in the Kurdistan region.