Ankara’s opposition to Kurdish autonomy goes beyond oil or referendum
The rise of Kurdish nationalism in northern Iraq and elsewhere is a precedent that Turkey will not tolerate, if the level of repression it has doled out to its own Kurds over the past 40 years is anything to go by.
The September 25 non-binding “yes” referendum result in Iraqi Kurdistan may see Turkey cut off the Kurds’ pipeline to the Mediterranean and seal its border, through which about 70% of all Kurdistan’s imports enter. Around 90% of Iraqi Kurdistan oil exports flow in the opposite direction, north into Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims the vote has no legitimacy and warned: “If [president of the Iraqi Kurdish region] Masoud Barzani and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war.”
Baghdad has cut off Erbil from the air by blocking international flights into the city. Turkish news channels have had wall-to-wall coverage of the referendum fallout, depicting tanks driving along the border with northern Iraq and Turkish and Iraqi soldiers swapping flags in displays of unity. This is window dressing in opposition to what Ankara and Baghdad see as an outrageous act of defiance.
However, because Turkey and the KRG both know there is no taking back a public vote, particularly when it is non-binding, Erdogan’s words warning of a sectarian war sound particularly ominous.
A KRG official, quoted by the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper, admitted as much, saying: “We did not expect this much… This [referendum] has nothing to do with Turkey.”
The Kurds — between 25 million and 35 million people — comprise one of the largest ethnic groups in the Middle East and are, by population, the largest in the world without a nation-state. They are spread out across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Half of those scattered across the region live in Turkey, many in western cities such as Izmir and Istanbul though centred in the south-eastern regions bordering Iraq and Syria. Therefore, growing demands for Kurdish independence worry Turkey more than the others.
Anyone who has spent time in Kurdish-majority regions of eastern Turkey in recent years will know the depth of Ankara’s hostility to Kurdish self-determination.
In 2015 and 2016, almost unnoticed by the outside world, Turkey destroyed whole towns and neighbourhoods in its south-east, making homeless more than 500,000 of its own citizens. Its aim was to root out a few hundred armed Kurdish militants, the vast majority of whom were simply disaffected young men, not the hardcore Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters who have been responsible for assassinating Turkish soldiers and police.
The Kurds of northern Syria are broadly recognised as the most progressive and unified fighting and political entity in the Levant. Yet last year, Turkey sent thousands of troops into Syria, a war zone of such complexity and danger that no other country has dared do so on a similar scale. It was not to help unseat Syrian President Bashar Assad or to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), the two most macabre sides in the conflict, but to stop Kurdish forces from gaining an upper hand.
Major security threats in the region over the past two decades — the war in Iraq and the emergence of ISIS — have come and gone but Turkey’s hostility to Kurdish independence is as strong today as at any time in decades. If Kurdistan takes its independence claims further, which its political leadership claims is inevitable, the consequences may be far worse.
All bets are off on how Ankara will proceed. Turkey has been restrained in the wars in Iraq and Syria — conflicts that devastated its neighbours — but sharing a border with an independent Kurdish state is something Ankara may never be able to stomach. The KRG is playing with fire and Ankara is eager to add accelerants.