The entire world is against an indepedent KRG; could more autonomy save the day?
It seems that no country other than Israel is yet willing to fully recognize the Kurdish referendum. But the intensity of the opposition to it is varied. Some countries are simply asking Mesut Barzani to change his mind, others including Turkey even refer to the possibility in the long run of adapting military measures. Is military action a possibility although most actors interested in the region are trying to avoid it? What should be expected in the aftermath of the Kurdish referendum?
Which way can things go in the region?
Some sanctions against the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) are already being introduced. For example, it appears that international flights to and from the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital Erbil and Suleymaniyeh are being suspended. Domestic flights had already been suspended on Baghdad’s orders. There seems to be general recognition that it is not advisable to engage in military action right away. The question is whether military action is a possibility in the long run. Although many actors make reference to it, armed action would introduce another hot conflict into the area with an uncertain outcome.
The Iraqi government has made a number of demands of the KRG asking that the airports as well as the border posts be turned over to the central government. This is an understandable demand in any federal state because border controls are a prerogative of the central state while in the running of airports, the agencies of the central government have certain roles. But in the particular arrangement that has prevailed in Iraq so far, the power of the central government has not reached the border posts and apparently, the airports. The Iraqi government may also think of other measures – I don’t know what these would be – to persuade the KRG to recognize its authority in areas where it ought to rightfully belong to the central government.
The central government of Iraq is acting alongside its two powerful neighbors, Iran and Turkey, to persuade the KRG to recognize its authority. But the question remains: what if it doesn’t? We don’t know the answer to that. All we can hope for is that some sort of negotiation will be preferred. The KRG has said that it is not necessarily going to declare independence right away. It is possible that the KRG will retain its idea of independence but will be willing to postpone it indefinitely and settle for greater regional autonomy.
What can be said about the reactions of the countries?
Despite the highly conflictual situation, at the moment, all countries have an economic and a security stake in maintaining their relations with the KRG to prevent it from breaking up. From a security perspective, I have already indicated that there is no need for a major second war in the region when there is one going on against ISIS. But from an economic perspective, everyone is affected by Iraqi oil. Here, I am referring not only to oil from the KRG region but also Iraqi oil that will be shipped through pipelines through the KRG into Turkey and then on to international markets. This consideration is also beginning to apply more and more to natural gas now and will more so in the future. More broadly, all parties are concerned that their trade with this region will be negatively affected. The various actors operating in the region suspect each other’s motives, particularly with regard to any military intervention. This situation leads them to pursue rather confusing policies. It seems that Turkey, one of the closest countries to the region, is most confused about what to do.
Is Turkey pursu ng the right policy?
While it is difficult to say exactly what the “right” policy is, Turkey is confused and this confusion is reflected in policy statements being made by different authorities. The critical thing is, of course, that Turkey should not act alone but try to build a consensus among the major interested parties on what to do. It should always be remembered that Turkey is not by itself in a position to determine the fate of Iraq, especially whether it can maintain its territorial integrity. So, we have to pursue a policy that simultaneously keeps relations with the central Iraqi government in order, but does not destroy relations with the KRG to an irreparable level while also managing relations with other interested parties. Naturally, this calls for a careful policy that has to be prepared in wide consultation with different agencies of government and articulated through a strictly limited number of people. This means that not all ministers should issue statements about Iraq and any statements should be cleared through some monitoring agency (normally the Foreign Ministry) so that Turkey does not appear contradictory in what it says and does. In addition, it should not produce ill feelings on any side. Turkish diplomacy in the past has been capable of doing this. There is no reason that it could not be done now but the political authority must agree that we have an emergency about which we have to tread particularly carefully.
With whom should Turkey be working?
We have to work closely with the Iraqi government, but also with Iran, Russia and the US, who are important actors in Iraq, and, of course, with the KRG whose decisions we are trying to influence without using military action. We cannot, for example, ignore the US although our policies in the region are not always in harmony with one another. We have to remember that Iraq is highly influenced by Iran’s policies and orientation. Currently, major parties with an interest in Iraq are agreed, even if it is only for the time being, that they don’t want an independent Kurdish state. By working together, they may still persuade the KRG that independence is not necessarily a good option and persuade the Iraqi government that rather than having a war, it is preferable to accommodate some of the KRG’s demands.
Iran and Turkey have to talk about an additional problem: terrorist movements that extend into Iran and Turkey are managed from Northern Iraq. The minimum they should be asking in this situation from the KRG and Iraq is to neutralize these terrorist bases. If the KRG and the Iraqi government are not able to do this, maybe Iranian and Turkish military units could assume responsibility. This is something to be considered because if the KRG says it has no claims on the territory of the neighboring states, then it should show its commitment by getting rid of these movements, which operate out of its territory and are often run by non-Iraqi nationals.