War rhetoric following Kurdish referendum fizzles out
Ankara- The Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) independence vote stirred controversy as neighbouring Turkey and Iran, as well as the Iraqi central government, threatened the Iraqi Kurds with military action and economic sanctions.
The Baghdad government banned international flights from and to Erbil, crippling the autonomous region, and warned of economic reprisals. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of cutting off oil trade, which is the lifeline of the Iraqi Kurds and asserted that action by the Turkish military could “come suddenly overnight.”
Tensions escalated to dangerous levels when the Turkish military started a drill near the Iraqi border on September 25, the day of the independence vote. Iraqi Army elements joined the exercises and the Iranian Army conducted a similar drill at its border.
“We will not accept changing borders in the region,” Iranian President Hassan Rohani said during a news conference with Erdogan in Tehran.
The future of the war-weary region looked grim but the situation seemed to simmer down. The Erbil government called for dialogue and cooperation with Baghdad more than ever and Ankara’s attention shifted from the Kurdish independence vote to an operation in Syria and an unprecedented spat with the United States.
“I do not see the option of military operation realistic for now,” said Mesut Ozcan, an international relations professor at Istanbul Sehir University. “The tensions are in a declining trend.”
Ozcan argued that the joint Turkish-Iraqi military operation near the border stemmed from the KRG’s indifference to Ankara’s warnings.
Even though their government recently turned its focus to neighbouring Syria, Turkish officials said they are monitoring the situation in northern Iraq.
“Turkey is closely watching the events unfolding in the KRG and reserves all its rights to take necessary measures if need be,” said a high-level official from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
KRG officials expressed surprise after Ankara teamed with Baghdad for such a show of strength against the referendum. Having determined the referendum date and gone ahead with the vote, KRG officials appeared to be scrambling to find a way out of trouble but without annulling the results of the referendum, which was an overwhelming “yes” to independence.
KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani dismissed the likelihood of a military confrontation in northern Iraq but stressed the need for communication with Baghdad and Iraq’s neighbours.
“It is necessary to eliminate the obstacles in the way of having talks and negotiations [with Baghdad], ease the tensions and protect the stability of the region,” Barzani was quoted as saying by the official KRG website.
Erbil has also been trying to butter up Ankara. “Turkey has no better friends than the KRG in the region,” said Barzani.
As the post-referendum era in the region neared its one-month point, war rhetoric and threats with unbearable economic sanctions have been replaced by calls for dialogue from Erbil and Baghdad as well as cautious statements from Ankara.
“It is our desire that the issue is solved through common sense and peace as soon as possible,” said Erdogan. “When the Kurdistan Regional Government shows the wisdom to amend their mistake, then as Turkey, together with its state and people, we will continue to stand by our brothers.”
Fiery political remarks or actions between Baghdad and Erbil may continue but another battle in Iraq looks distant while tables for negotiations are being set up. The KRG’s perturbed neighbours and the furious central government, however, may need much less than Erbil gauges for a perilous spark.