WHICH STEPS MUST KRG TAKE TO NOR­MAL­IZE RE­LA­TIONS WITH TURKEY?

The KRG’s re­la­tions with Turkey, which hit rock bot­tom af­ter Barzani’s mis­guided de­ci­sions, can be mended on con­di­tion that the Kur­dish lead­er­ship starts to take ra­tio­nal steps

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - Front Page - YAHYA BOSTAN

IN LIGHT of the il­le­git­i­mate ref­er­en­dum last month, the KRG ceased to be an is­land of sta­bil­ity in the Mid­dle East. In­stead, it be­came a source of in­sta­bil­ity and chaos

Over the past weeks, Turkey, Iran and Iraq worked to­gether and took a se­ries of joint steps against the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment (KRG) in Ir­bil. Iraq’s mil­i­tary claimed full con­trol of Kirkuk. All airspaces have been closed to flights in and out of the KRG. The Turk­ish Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil passed a res­o­lu­tion re­gard­ing the trans­fer of the Ibrahim Khalil bor­der gate, which is lo­cated across from Habur, to the cen­tral gov­ern­ment of Iraq. Last week, Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi vis­ited the Turk­ish cap­i­tal Ankara to hold talks with Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan and Prime Min­is­ter Bi­nali Yıldırım about prospec­tive steps re­gard­ing Ir­bil. And now, ev­ery­one’s won­der­ing what will hap­pen next.

To be per­fectly clear, the sit­u­a­tion isn’t ex­actly great for the KRG. The il­le­git­i­mate in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum held by KRG Pres­i­dent Ma­soud Barzani re­sulted in a catas­tro­phe: Ir­bil was forced to with­draw from al­most all ter­ri­to­ries that it had cap­tured be­hind the smoke­screen of the anti-Daesh cam­paign. In other words, the KRG ad­min­is­tra­tion went all-in and lost ev­ery­thing it had ac­com­plished over the past two years.

Since all airspaces and bor­der cross­ings have been shut, the KRG’s econ­omy came to a screech­ing halt. Hav­ing promised his peo­ple that Kirkuk would be­come part of the KRG, Barzani largely lost his cred­i­bil­ity by hand­ing the city over to the Iraqi mil­i­tary within 24 hours. Nowa­days, re­ports by ma­jor news agen­cies cov­er­ing the sit­u­a­tion in North­ern Iraq are full of state­ments at­trib­uted to re­gret­ful Iraqi Kur­dish of­fi­cials.

See­ing that his ship had run aground, Barzani was forced to take a step back. Although he of­fered to freeze the ref­er­en­dum re­sults, nei­ther Ankara nor Bagh­dad found that pro­posal sat­is­fac­tory. Af­ter all, both gov­ern­ments want the ref­er­en­dum an­nulled – as op­posed to frozen. Barzani’s re­fusal to an­nul the re­sults, in turn, makes it im­pos­si­ble for Ankara to re-es­tab­lish con­tact with Ir­bil. Ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with Turkey-KRG re­la­tions, se­nior of­fi­cials from North­ern Iraq have re­quested an au­di­ence with the Turk­ish Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs yet failed to hear back from Ankara.

Of course, there are cer­tain steps that Ir­bil could take to re­pair its re­la­tions with Turkey.

Judg­ing by the most re­cent de­vel­op­ments, it ap­pears that the KRG ad­min­is­tra­tion has taken cer­tain de­ci­sions in an ef­fort to de-es­ca­late the ten­sions. To nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with Ankara, Ir­bil must take two steps with­out de­lay: First, it ought to re­turn to the sta­tus quo – in other words, an­nul the ref­er­en­dum re­sults. Ir­bil’s of­fer to freeze the re­sults could be con­sid­ered a first step to­wards an­nul­ment and a to­ken of their good­will. Sec­ond, KRG lead­ers must de­clare that they will re­frain from fu­ture steps that could fuel re­gional chaos and threats.

Let me be clearer: De­spite its anti- demo­cratic sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, con­stant back-and-forth with Bagh­dad and re­fusal to fully com­ply with Turkey’s re­quests in the fight against the PKK, Barzani’s KRG was long con­sid­ered a source of sta­bil­ity in the re­gion. As such, the Turks, who wanted to pre­serve re­gional sta­bil­ity, pro­vided some level of sup­port to Ir­bil.

In light of the il­le­git­i­mate ref­er­en­dum last month, the KRG ceased to be an is­land of sta­bil­ity in the Mid­dle East. In­stead, it be­came a source of in­sta­bil­ity and chaos. Barzani’s reck­less push for in­de­pen­dence not only pit­ted Pesh­merga forces against Iraq’s mil­i­tary but also put tens of thou­sands of Kurds at risk of war and vi­o­lent con­flict. In other words, Barzani, as an out-of-touch car­pet­bag­ger, placed at risk his own peo­ple along with ev­ery­body else in the re­gion. By paving the way to the Hashd al-Shabi’s en­try into Kirkuk, he com­pletely dis­rupted the re­gional bal­ance of power. At the same time, Mr. Barzani wasted the time and en­ergy of all play­ers fight­ing ter­ror­ist groups – i.e. un­der­mined the coun­tert­er­ror­ism cam­paign un­der­way. If Ir­bil would like to re­pair its re­la­tions with Iraq’s neigh­bors, it must aban­don desta­bi­liz­ing poli­cies, stop tak­ing uni­lat­eral ac­tions and of­fer re­as­sur­ances to re­gional pow­ers.

Un­for­tu­nately, ex­pect­ing Barzani, the man who brought his own re­gional gov­ern­ment to the brink of col­lapse, to take the above-men­tioned steps would be noth­ing but wish­ful think­ing. Ankara’s mes­sage has been the same: On Oct. 2, I men­tioned in this col­umn that Turk­ish sources said that Turkey-KRG re­la­tions would not be nor­mal­ized un­til Barzani de­cided to step down. It would ap­pear that Ir­bil got Turkey’s mes­sage. Barzani knows that he can no longer re­main in power. Fi­nally, on Satur­day, Reuters claimed that the KRG leader would hand over pres­i­den­tial pow­ers on Nov. 1. If the trans­fer of power can be com­pleted, it will be con­sid­ered a sec­ond sign of Ir­bil’s will­ing­ness to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with Turkey. I be­lieve that re­la­tions can con­tinue with­out any ma­jor prob­lems if Barzani’s suc­ces­sor takes the above-men­tioned steps and pledge to im­ple­ment re­spon­si­ble poli­cies mov­ing for­ward. Let us re­call that Ankara had no prob­lem with the KRG, but the re­la­tion­ship was de­railed by Barzani. And Turkey re­peat­edly showed that it would of­fer all the help it can if the KRG aims to con­trib­ute to re­gional peace as an eco­nom­i­cally de­vel­oped and sta­ble place.

KRG leader Ma­soud Barzani speaks to jour­nal­ists dur­ing a visit to Sin­jar in north­west­ern Iraq, Dec. 21, 2014.

Yahya Bostan

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