Kurdistan Regional Government’s Referendum

September 26, 2017
During his meeting with President Erdogan on the margins of the UN General Assembly, President Trump heaped words of praise on his guest.
“He’s running a very difficult part of the world,” Trump said. “He’s involved very, very strongly and, frankly, he’s getting very high marks. And he’s also been working with the United States. We have a great friendship as countries. I think we’re, right now, as close as we have ever been. And a lot of that has to do with the personal relationship.”
President Erdogan was reserved. He referred to his host as “my dear friend Donald” and said, “… we will be assessing the current relations between the United States and Turkey, and have an opportunity to discuss recent regional developments as well…”
As a matter of fact, Washington and Ankara are at odds on a wide range of issues and members of Mr. Trump’s team must have been just as reserved as Mr. Erdogan on the state of relations between the two countries.
Relations with the EU and Germany remain at an all-time low. While Mrs. Merkel has been re-elected as chancellor for a fourth term, far-right Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) entering the parliament for the first time and as the third biggest party is not a good sign and Ankara’s needless spats with Berlin must have contributed to its success. However, according to newspapers, fourteen members of the newly elected Bundestag have Turkish roots and ten of them are women, a remarkable result.
Reconciliation with Russia should continue but not a cost for Ankara’s relations with the West. The purchase of S-400 missiles appears more like a political statement, an investment to secure Russia’s cooperation in Syria than a measure to bolster Turkey’s air defense.
And, relations with regional countries are still problematic as a result of Turkey’s misguided involvement in the Syrian conflict. Like some other Western countries which have come to admit that the Syrian opposition is divided and does not offer a viable alternative, Ankara has also softened its rhetoric on the Assad regime and that represents a more realistic attitude.
But now, the future of Iraq beyond ISIS has been added to a fully loaded foreign and security policy agenda.
The White House readout of the Trump-Erdogan meeting stated that the two leaders reaffirmed their rejection of the planned Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) referendum on September 25th, and the serious consequences that would follow if it occurs. It also said that the two leaders called on Kurdish leaders to accept the process of intense negotiations on all outstanding issues which the United States and Turkey are prepared to endorse and support.
Despite international appeals from many quarters, the referendum was held and with 78% going to the polls it resulted in a strong preference for independence.
On September 20, International Crisis Group’s Maria Fantappie, Senior Analyst for Iraq, in a commentary titled “How to Mitigate the Risks of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Referendum” stated the following:
“… For those driving the referendum, namely the president of the Kurdistan region Masoud Barzani and his party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the most immediate objective is not so much to move quickly toward a declaration of independence, but rather to shore up their own political fortunes within Iraqi Kurdistan and its chief city of Erbil. By adopting an assertive nationalist stance, they hope to silence dissent and force opponents to fall in line. Moreover, by extending the referendum to so-called “disputed territories”, a term that defines areas outside the Kurdistan region over which Baghdad and Erbil advance competing claims, the Kurdish leadership aims to strengthen its case for annexing these areas, provided they achieve a resounding yes-vote there.
“But political consequences of the vote, intended and unintended, nonetheless could be profound. Once the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) is defeated, key aspects of Iraq’s power structure once more will be up for re-negotiation. This includes the question of de-centralisation of authority, the organisation and deployment of security forces, the internal balance of power within the Shiite majority and the state of U.S.-Iran competition for influence in the country. By calling the referendum, Barzani is tossing a stone into an already troubled pond…” (*)
Last Saturday, the Turkish Parliament authorized the government to undertake external military interventions to protect Turkey’s interests against unilateral initiatives on our southern borders. This was a message, together with military drills, to Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government as well as the YPG, US’ principal partner in fight against ISIS in Syria.
The Middle East is engaged in political/military conflict. Ankara needs to avoid being drawn further into this quagmire. Its response to developments in Iraq should prioritize diplomacy. Justice and Development Party (JDP) government has entertained cordial relations with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government for years. Now, it is time to put this to good use in forging a reasonable understanding between Baghdad and Erbil. The KRG needs to be realistic on the so-called “disputed territories” which are areas outside the region’s administration if a violent confrontation is to be avoided. Tehran should support such endeavors and prove itself a constructive regional power. And, the US and Israel should respect the position taken by the international community on the Iran nuclear deal. This deal was about preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Moreover, it was an investment to bring Tehran back to the international fold and strengthen the hand its moderates. For this investment to bear fruit, Iran needs to be engaged rather than confronted. PM Netanyahu, with Iraq and Syria now only shadows of their former selves, may be seeking a similar future also for Iran. Gulf states may share his aspirations. All one can say in this respect is that the unravelling of Iraq and Syria will only be seen by the peoples of the region as another Western conspiracy and re-writing of the much-reviled Sykes-Picot. In brief, this is the moment for effective multilateralism and greater regional awareness.
Merriam-Webster defines “magic wand” as “a stick that is used to make magic things happen”. It is almost always used in the negative: “he/she has no magic wand to…” At present, Turkey is faced with a multitude of internal and external problems but it does have a magic wand which can make the most, if not all of these disappear. That magic wand is a rapid return to the democratic path. If the JDP leadership were to use it, we Turks would soon wake up to a different world. Wishful thinking? Yes. A dream? Perhaps. However, as Thomas Jefferson once said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”
(*) https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/how-mitigate-risks-iraqi-kurdistans-referendum

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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