Iraqi Kurds’ insistence on independence not welcomed in region
Ankara-The decision by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani, to have a referendum on the independence of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region and several disputed areas was met with national and regional displeasure.
The Iraqi central government in Baghdad was one of the first in the region to blast the measure. “Any decision concerning the future of Iraq must take into account the constitutional provisions. It is an Iraqi decision and not one party alone,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s office said in a statement shortly after the KRG announcement.
The KRG’s northern neighbour Turkey did not welcome the decision either. Ankara has been vocal in slamming the Iraqi Kurds for their decision to pursue independence, despite having good ties with the KRG.
The worsening relations between the two sides could affect the economy as well. Ankara has a trade volume of about $11 billion with Iraq, 85% of which is with the KRG, but relations could be shattered with the referendum decision made by Erbil.
“Stepping on northern Iraq’s independence is a threat to Iraq’s territorial integrity and it is wrong,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called the referendum decision “irresponsible” and the Turkish Foreign Ministry labelled it as “a grave mistake.”
Ankara was also critical of the fact that the referendum, set for September 25, would include a vote on the annexation of several disputed areas such as the Turkmen-populated Kirkuk. “Kirkuk’s annexation is certainly unacceptable for Turkey,” Can Acun, a Middle East expert for the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), told the English-language Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah.
A senior official from Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) said the KRG has every right to call a referendum on its future. Pointing to the International Charter of the United Nations, KDP Group Deputy Chairman Tariq Gerdi said: “The charter states that every ethnic group and human entity has the right of self-determination.”
The Turkish government also appears concerned with the message of cessation an independent Kurdish state would give to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and its Syria affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — both enemies of Turkey.
The YPG has bad relations with the KRG and Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga forces have frequently clashed with PKK militants, which are supported by Iran, inside Iraq. The weakening of the KRG’s ties with Turkey would leave both sides more exposed to PKK/YPG threats.
The international community is worried by the regional implications. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) distanced itself from the KRG’s bid and said in a statement that it would not be “engaged in any way or form” in the referendum process.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Washington favours “a unified, stable and democratic Iraq.” Despite its support for the KRG’s self-determination in principle, the Trump administration did not openly back the independence referendum.
British Ambassador to Baghdad Frank Baker said the United Kingdom was not currently “supporting the idea to hold a referendum.” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Berlin “can only warn against one-sided steps on this issue. The unity of Iraq is on the line.”
The European Union was not very welcoming of the independence idea. EU foreign ministers said that “unilateral steps must be avoided and that all open questions must be resolved through consensual positions” based on Iraq’s constitution.
Should a state of Kurdistan be created, it would find itself surrounded by neighbours that view it as a threat.
It would have a border with Iraq, with which it presumably would continue to have territorial disputes. Regardless of who controls the Syrian border with the KRG — whether it is Syrian rebels or the YPG — Syria would be too unstable to be a reliable neighbour for Iraq’s Kurds.
Cetiner Cetin, an Ankara-based Kurdish journalist, said the independent KRG may lead to a war between the Kurds. He contended that the PKK has already been seeing the KRG as an enemy. “It is about who will form an independent Kurdish state first. If the KRG achieves it, the PKK or the YPG from Syria may attack the independent KRG,” he said.
The independent KRG would also have borders with Iran and Turkey, whose militants are expected to continue using KRG territory as a base to attack their home countries. This means that from day one, Kurdistan would have external and internal security problems that would undermine its independence and self-determination.