August 27, 2017

Turkey visit dims prospects of Kurdish referendum

It was a period of extremely intense diplomatic traffic. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis’s itinerary was highly congested, a reminder of the volatility of the circumstances in Syria and Iraq.

The Kurds, as opposed to jihadists, have taken the lead role. In many ways, history repeats itself: Whenever the balance of powers has been shattered, the Kurds — in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq — have become key players. They are important but vulnerable and almost always seem doomed to end up as losers.

The intense traffic was mainly about them this time as well, it seems. Soon after Mattis met with Jordanian King Abdullah II, it was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s turn. Not much came out from the meeting between the two regional leaders, whose relations have been distant, but it was a clear sign that Jordan has been pushed into the fore in the region’s 3D chess match because of the wobbly politics of Turkey. Erdogan’s rapid visit confirms this.

As top generals from Russia and Iran visited Ankara, Mattis was meeting with Iraqi government officials in Baghdad and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) representatives in Erbil. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s itinerary included the same destinations.

Awaiting Mattis’s arrival, Erdogan’s government had been forging unity with Iran on at least the issue of demolishing Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum. Iran expressed its fierce resistance to the vote as it increased pressure on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to let off its support for KRG President Masoud Barzani. In an act apparently coordinated with Iran, Turkey had asked the PUK’s representative in Ankara a week earlier to leave Turkish soil immediately.

Tehran and Ankara maintain that they may operate jointly if Barzani insists on having the referendum, although Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps issued a statement saying that a cross-border operation is not likely, meaning that Tehran is aware of the risks of being dragged into a play as desired by Ankara.

The referendum issue was on the top of Mattis’s agenda. He reportedly pushed the KRG to indefinitely postpone the referendum, citing the risks, and gained some ground. A Kurdish source in Europe, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “The probability of having the vote was 99% until Mattis’s visit and now I would say it has sunk down to 60%.” He added: “I should have received an invitation to the referendum events by now and it is strangely delaying.”

In meetings between Mattis and Erdogan, tension centred on Turkey’s frustration with the United States’ extensive collaboration with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian Kurdish movement that has a major role in the combat against the Islamic State (ISIS).

While Turkish sources remained vague about details, sources from the American side repeated that Mattis’s stance remained unchanged. US support for PYD units, which Turkey insists have organic links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), would remain tactical. To ease the tension, the former US Marine Corps general went further, offering deeper US assistance to Ankara’s drive to detect, capture or bomb the high-level PKK commanders in the Qandil Mountains.

This move, which constitutes a new dimension to the deteriorated US-Turkish relations, is seen as an additional tactical step by the United States. It is viewed similarly by Erdogan’s government, to whom every step in the war-torn area is transactional. Ankara needs additional US American military assistance. In return, the United States will be reassured about using the Incirlik Air Base.

There are more issues, however. Will Raqqa be left to PYD control after its conquest? If not, then what? And, it seems that Turkish and the US sides had an understanding that the Popular Mobilisation Forces would not be allowed to be deployed in Tal Afar.