Recent developments in Iraq, with the Kurdish referendum for independence taking place as scheduled on Monday, put the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan between a rock and a hard place.
According to most recent press reports, more than 93 percent of voters approved the referendum for independence from Iraq, with about 282,000 votes counted. Ankara is talking tough but doesn’t have good options.
Erdogan, as always, first cares about domestic politics. His de facto alliance with Turkish nationalists is critically important for electoral politics. The nationalist party in Turkey and the jingoist press are agitating against the Kurds. With one eye on the polls, Erdogan needs to maintain this conservative-nationalist alliance.
Presidential elections in Turkey are scheduled for 2019 but many analysts believe Erdogan will not wait that long. He is likely to opt for early elections in 2018 since economic dynamics that are now in his favor may deteriorate in the longer run.
Despite respectable growth rates at the present, inflation, interest rates, and unemployment are on the rise. The likelihood of early elections and the imperative of nationalist populism at home requires tough talk against Kurds.
These domestic dynamics present a dilemma because the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, led by Massoud Barzani, has been a good ally of Erdogan. In fact, many considered the KRG the only bright spot in Turkey’s otherwise deteriorating relations with neighbors.
Barzani is against the PKK, the Kurdish insurgent group Turkey has been fighting against since 1984. Turkey’s war against the PKK has greatly intensified in the last couple of years since peace talks collapsed in 2015.
The KRG is also an important supplier of oil to Turkey and a strong market for Turkish exports and construction companies. The landlocked Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq can ship as much as 700,000 barrels a day through the pipeline to Ceyhan on the Mediterranean.
It is therefore not in Turkey’s economic and strategic interests to destabilize the KRG. Turkey even has a small military base in northern Iraq where Turkish troops train the Kurdish Peshmerga and provide support against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).
Given such strong economic and military relations with the KRG, Erdogan hoped he could pressure and co-opt Barzani not to pursue the path to a referendum for independence. Yet, with his own political future at stake, Barzani did not cave and Erdogan now finds himself in a bind.
It is under such circumstances that Ankara declared last week that it can “choose” to close the valves on Kurdish oil if the referendum takes place. Erdogan has also hinted at military action. Although the Turkish army is now conducting military exercises at the border, the threat of a Turkish invasion of the KRG lacks credibility.
In the absence of a military option, Turkey is likely to put economic and diplomatic pressure on the KRG, temporarily freezing economic relations and shutting border crossings with Iraq’s Kurdish region in both directions.
In the meantime, Barzani will also probably try to calm nervous neighbors by indicating that independence remains a strategic objective rather than a fait accompli.
In any case, the referendum in the KRG will not pave a smooth path to Kurdish independence. Baghdad, Tehran, Ankara, and Washington are all opposed to Kurdish independence. In practice, this means that the KRG will have to negotiate its way to more sovereignty from Baghdad. A major bone of contention in this endeavor will be the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
Iraq’s central government condemned the KRG for including Kirkuk in its referendum and has threatened to retaliate. In Baghdad, the parliament approved legislation ordering the closure of borders with the Kurdish region and the deployment of troops to areas under Kurdish control since the Islamic State offensive of 2014. Tehran has also reportedly closed its airspace bordering the Kurdish region, and the Iranian military is also conducting exercises in its frontier provinces.
With the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurds having voted in favor of independence, Barzani believes he has strengthened his hand against Baghdad. Yet, on top of galvanizing Arab nationalism in Baghdad, he has also antagonized Ankara, Tehran, and Washington.
In addition to complicating the Arab-Kurdish alliance against IS, this was exactly why U.S. diplomats pressured him to postpone the vote. Time will show whether Barzani’s gamble will pay off. For now, Kurdish independence is still far away, and the KRG is facing an even more challenging regional environment.