Is Kurdish referendum a ticking bomb?

U.S Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, seems to have failed to persuade Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, as many unknıwns remain about the outcome of the referendum on independence of Kurdistan.

Barzani asked Tillerson what the guarantees and options would be to determine the future of the region’s people if the referendum was postponed. KRG declared on June 7 a plan to hold the referendum  on September 25. The announcement had come following a meeting between the region’s political parties, except the Change Movement (Gorran) and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG).

An official from the U.S. State Department told NRT English on August 7 that the U.S. does not support the Kurdish referendum at this time and expressed the continuous support of the U.S. for a federal, prosperous, unified and democratic Iraq.

“A referendum now, even this non-binding one, could have catastrophic consequences for Baghdad-Erbil cooperation that is essential to defeat ISIS [Islamic State]. A referendum now also has the potential to lead to violence and instability, especially as the Kurdistan Regional Government plans to include disputed areas in the poll,” the official said.

The prospect raised deep concerns in Teheran as well as Ankara, and led to a top level military visit by the Iranian army chief, Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, to the Turkish capital.

And the main question is, how Turkey and KRG will manage the rising tension, from their vantage points.

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Erdogan has said the referen­dum “would imperil the territo­rial integrity of Iraq” and the Turkish Foreign Ministry has described the prospect as “dam­aging the regional stability.”

Repeated statements from the United States, the United King­dom and Germany have said that, if the referendum ends with a resounding yes, which is foreseen as almost certain, independence of the Kurdish state would not be recognised.

Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani has not blinked. In an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper, he said the decision to call the vote for September 25 was definite “with no return.”

“I am asking,” he added, “when will the proper time arrive for the referendum? If we wait for others, such a time will never come. It is only the people of Kurdistan who can decide the date.”

In an interview with Foreign Policy, Barzani was evasive when asked about how he sees Turkey’s reaction.

”We would prefer to die of starvation than to live under the oppression and occupation of others,” he said. “If this decision is made by referendum and the reaction is to isolate us, let our people die. That will be a ‘glory’ for the world that they have killed our people by starvation just because those people wanted to express their destiny through democratic means.”

It is apparent that Barzani is keen on gambling, possibly calculating the administrations of US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron would seek a balance in that part of the region where Russia and Iran are expanding their influence.

Over the last few years, the relationship between Ankara and Erbil has been intensely focused on economic and commercial interests. The KRG has had no option other than collaborating with Turkey to export Kurdish oil through Kirkuk-Iskenderun pipelines and is dependent, to a large scale, on Turkish invest­ments.

For Erdogan and his family, especially his son-in-law Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, the business has been very personal. For many Turkish investors, who have seen heavy losses in markets such as Egypt, Iraqi Kurdistan is a backyard Ankara cannot afford to lose.

There begin the complications that Erdogan knows will test his pragmatism against the decades-long Turkish foreign policy position to block Kurdish self-rule that would lead to international recognition.

Erdogan’s domestic political ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has based its existence largely on the demands of the Turkmen minority, and a big part of the Turkish media has positioned itself against Barzani’s declaration, claiming that it is yet another Western conspiracy to weaken Turkey.

How, then, will Erdogan juggle the Kurdish independence vote? His low-key approach points to a calculation that a Kurdish “yes” will cause sharp friction with Baghdad and that Barzani may ask for Turkish help.

Further on, knowing that the result will be non-binding could give Erdogan leverage to engage KRG to alienate the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD) in return for more powerful eco­nomic and even military coopera­tion between Ankara and Erbil.

This could mean that Erdogan, who has weakened the pro-Kurd­ish party in Turkey, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), through oppressive measures, may calculate to operate easily to increase the gap between Bar­zani’s KRG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), pushing for a battle between them. “Divide and rule” is an Ottoman legacy and this is where the Turkish president hopes to appease the hardliner nationalist vote at home.

There are many more balls to juggle, however. For both Russia and the United States, the Kurdish presence has dimensions that are aimed at limiting Turkey’s manoeuvring space. As long as Erdogan plays hardball with Turkey’s Kurds, it may not cause a friction with any of them but, if he hardens his stance on the Iraqi Kurds, he will face tougher choices and higher risks.

So, from their vantage points, both Barzani and Erdogan would possibly play for time. After all, the heart of the matter is that they both desperately seek ways to consolidate their one-man rule and they won’t let a vote rock their boats.

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