War rhetoric following Kurdish referendum fizzles out

October 15, 2017

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.