Turkey blusters — then blinks — after Kurdish referendum
This was a referendum that showed the profound difference between words and deeds.
Turkey, once again, repeated its usual pattern of behaviour — over-the-top threats to the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over the independence referendum and conflicting steps to implement the threats.
However, 24 hours after the 92% “yes” vote for Kurdish independence, the public was wondering whether the fury whipped up by Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was in vain.
Turkey, like Iran, was frustrated by the Iraqi Kurds’ insistence on proceeding with the referendum. Both countries targeted Iraqi Kurdistan’s chief vulnerability — its economy. However, both acted reluctantly, perhaps because they knew they were historically locked into the role of rival powers.
Turkey’s official tone remained aggressive, reflecting the high-decibel utterances of Erdogan. Even before the vote, there seemed to be hesitation about what was possible for Ankara to do. Three days before vote, Turkey’s National Security Council issued a carefully worded communiqué that took a cautious line within international law.
The parliamentary vote on a cross-border operation may be the real litmus test for Kurdophobia in Turkey. It was supported by most parliamentarians. The main opposition — the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) — joined its archrival AKP and its de facto partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), in voting for military action in northern Iraq.
That vote reflected a basic fact — nearly 90% of Turkish parliamentarians are afflicted with populism, a “Kurdish allergy,” as observers noted.
The parliamentary vote was the most concrete result of the mood in Turkey after the Kurdish referendum. There were conflicting reports about the imposition of Turkish sanctions on trade with KRG but that was a non-starter when it became clear there were severe disagreements within the cabinet about moving ahead.
Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci explained it in the context of “national interests.” He said the government’s reflex action was “business as usual.” He added that “people may criticise me now, saying, ‘We talk about Mosul and Kirkuk as sacred causes but you are just talking about trade.’ But my job is trade.”
The facts provide context. Trade between Turkey and the KRG has increased to $5 billion this year, a 20% rise on 2016. The KRG’s debts to Turkish businesses total nearly $2 billion, reports stated.
The Turkish oil pipeline, which is used to move Kurdish oil to market, is a huge factor as well. KRG’s largest oil company is the Britain-listed Genel Energy, which has strong links with pro-AKP business circles in Turkey. Erdogan has spoken of “shutting off the valves because we control them” but Turkey has not done so.
Instead, Ankara stopped flights to Erbil and declared that military training for the Kurdish peshmerga forces will cease. The Turkish media regulatory body, RTUK, has taken Kurdish channels Rudaw TV and K24 off Turksat.
These measures drew an unexpected response. Rudaw Editor Rebwar Karim Wali wrote an opinion piece on his channel’s website contrasting Erdogan’s bluster about “valves” with his actual actions.
“Why did you not shut down the valves when the Kurdish oil was being sent to (the Turkish port of) Ceyhan and transported by ships all the way to Mexican gulf?” Wali thundered. “Where did all the money from the Kurdish oil sold go?”
Even so, the KRG is bound to suffer the effects of its neighbours’ displeasure. Nearly 90% of its supplies are dependent on Turkey and Iran.
Meanwhile, Russia will step into the frame. It did not speak against the Kurdish vote for independence before the referendum. Moscow maintains a dialogue with the KRG, which has signed a $2 billion oil deal with Rosneft, the Russian oil company.
There is little doubt that Russia will try to moderate the crisis. It will play on Iran’s good relations with Baghdad. It will attempt to influence Erdogan, who seems to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin can play a balancing role against the United States. Erdogan, of course, blames the Americans for the Kurdish “surge.”
Eventually, Turkey’s knee-jerk reactions to the Kurdish referendum may be no more than a passing storm.