Barzani and Erdogan won’t let a vote rock their boats
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the decibels of his rhetoric against the Syrian Kurdish movement, he had his eye on an approaching date. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has made its intention serious to have a referendum on independence. How Ankara will stand regarding the results of the vote is in question.
Erdogan has said the referendum “would imperil the territorial integrity of Iraq” and the Turkish Foreign Ministry has described the prospect as “damaging the regional stability.”
Repeated statements from the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany have said that, if the referendum ends with a resounding yes, which is foreseen as almost certain, independence of the Kurdish state would not be recognised.
Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani has not blinked. In an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper, he said the decision to call the vote for September 25 was definite “with no return.”
“I am asking,” he added, “when will the proper time arrive for the referendum? If we wait for others, such a time will never come. It is only the people of Kurdistan who can decide the date.”
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Barzani was evasive when asked about how he sees Turkey’s reaction.
”We would prefer to die of starvation than to live under the oppression and occupation of others,” he said. “If this decision is made by referendum and the reaction is to isolate us, let our people die. That will be a ‘glory’ for the world that they have killed our people by starvation just because those people wanted to express their destiny through democratic means.”
It is apparent that Barzani is keen on gambling, possibly calculating the administrations of US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron would seek a balance in that part of the region where Russia and Iran are expanding their influence.
Over the last few years, the relationship between Ankara and Erbil has been intensely focused on economic and commercial interests. The KRG has had no option other than collaborating with Turkey to export Kurdish oil through Kirkuk-Iskenderun pipelines and is dependent, to a large scale, on Turkish investments.
For Erdogan and his family, especially his son-in-law Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, the business has been very personal. For many Turkish investors, who have seen heavy losses in markets such as Egypt, Iraqi Kurdistan is a backyard Ankara cannot afford to lose.
There begin the complications that Erdogan knows will test his pragmatism against the decades-long Turkish foreign policy position to block Kurdish self-rule that would lead to international recognition.
Erdogan’s domestic political ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has based its existence largely on the demands of the Turkmen minority, and a big part of the Turkish media has positioned itself against Barzani’s declaration, claiming that it is yet another Western conspiracy to weaken Turkey.
How, then, will Erdogan juggle the Kurdish independence vote? His low-key approach points to a calculation that a Kurdish “yes” will cause sharp friction with Baghdad and that Barzani may ask for Turkish help.
Further on, knowing that the result will be non-binding could give Erdogan leverage to engage KRG to alienate the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) in return for more powerful economic and even military cooperation between Ankara and Erbil.
This could mean that Erdogan, who has weakened the pro-Kurdish party in Turkey, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), through oppressive measures, may calculate to operate easily to increase the gap between Barzani’s KRG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), pushing for a battle between them. “Divide and rule” is an Ottoman legacy and this is where the Turkish president hopes to appease the hardliner nationalist vote at home.
There are many more balls to juggle, however. For both Russia and the United States, the Kurdish presence has dimensions that are aimed at limiting Turkey’s manoeuvring space. As long as Erdogan plays hardball with Turkey’s Kurds, it may not cause a friction with any of them but, if he hardens his stance on the Iraqi Kurds, he will face tougher choices and higher risks.
So, from their vantage points, both Barzani and Erdogan would possibly play for time. After all, the heart of the matter is that they both desperately seek ways to consolidate their one-man rule and they won’t let a vote rock their boats.