The Kurdish referendum has reshuffled alliances in the Middle East Turkey won’t impose economic sanctions: The role of Ankara,Tehran


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Erbil by Elijah J. Magnier – @ejmalrai

High-ranking sources in Kurdistan (Erbil) said that the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani “expected the sanctions already announced by Baghdad and many more sanctions to come in the future”. Nevertheless, “the referendum was an essential step to undertake”, otherwise Barzani would no longer be considered the Kurdish leader.

“We are not afraid of Turkish sanctions because Ankara would lose more than it will gain if the common borders are closed. The Turkish representative promised us (months before the referendum) that harsh political measures will be adopted against Kurdistan but that no economic sanctions would be seriously considered. After all – he said – it is up to Turkey to stop sending its oil tankers to recover our oil production at a cheap price if (the Turkish President Recep Tayyib) Erdogan considers it a practical move within his own economy”, said the source.

The Erbil leadership knows that the Kurds lived through hunger and genocide throughout the years, sometimes living in the mountains for decades. Therefore, although any threat to their existence won’t be taken lightly, it cannot affect the process of independence that has been put on their desired track. The Kurdish leaders agree to allow Baghdad to control airports (Erbil and Suleymaniyeh) – as requested by Prime Minister Haidar Abadi – and would like to re-establish good neighbour relationships with all surrounding countries, particularly since the declaration of independence may require two or three years to put into concrete effect.

The 1800 km long borders between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq will force Erbil to send more Peshmerga troops to reinforce its security all along its borders and especially in disputed areas. However, for many countries the referendum has created embarrassment and reshuffled many of the alliances in the Middle East: the implications of this have yet to be considered.

It is Turkey that will be holding the key to the success or failure of a new “state” in the Middle East: Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey, its role in recent history in Syria and Iraq:

-Turkey supported the uprising of Sunni tribes in 2014 when these metamorphosed into the “Islamic State” (ISIS) terror group. Ankara didn’t ask its consulate diplomat to abandon the diplomatic mission, and so the diplomatic staff became prisoners in ISIS’s hands, to be later exchanged with hundreds of mujahedeen and their families held by Turkey.

-Ankara allowed the Iraqi Peshmerga to cross its territory into Syria to help the YPG (the Syrian branch of Turkey’s most sworn enemy: the PKK) and recover Ain al-Arab (Kobane) from ISIS in north of Syria.

-Turkey opened its borders to Jihadists from al-Qaeda and ISIS under the excuse of “bringing down the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad”.

-Turkey brought down a Russian jet while bombing jihadists along the Syrian borders, pushing Moscow to heavily engage in the Syrian war and give the upper hand to Assad.

-Turkey allowed al-Qaeda and the foreign fighters of the Turkistani group to occupy the bordering city of Kessab. The city was later recovered but Ankara created another military balance by expulsing from its territory thousands of members of al-Qaeda who then occupied the city of Idlib, today the centre of al-Qaeda in Syria (also known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham).

-Turkey asked its Syrian proxy to pull out of the city of Aleppo, rendering its liberation easier and less costly for the Syrian Army and its allies, which marked a real turning point in the war in Syria.

-Turkey joined the de-confliction negotiation in Astana (Kazakhstan) after reconciliation with Moscow and the return to normal relations between both countries.

-Turkey moved its forces into Syria to stop the creation of a Kurdish “state” known as “Rojava” (from al-Hasaka to Efrin) and disrupted a Kurdish Syrian access to the Mediterranean that could have been also used in the future for the Iraqi Kurds in case of sanctions against Iraqi Kurdistan.

-Turkey considered Iran a “terrorist state sponsor” but kept its diplomatic relationship with Tehran. Ankara increased economic exchanges and fully collaborated with Iran in Astana as partners and guarantors in Syria.

-Ankara did not hesitate to support the Iraqi Kurds in order to enjoy economic advantages, and to keep its forces in the north of Iraq. Despite many attempts by Baghdad to remove the Turkish troops, Ankara rejected all demands and hid behind “the Kurdistan request” so as to maintain several hundreds of officers and soldiers in Iraq.

-Turkey is not expected to implement any economic sanctions against Erbil despite Erdogan screaming, “the Kurds will go hungry”. There is no doubt the Turkish officials will continue launching menace after menace against Barzani but doubt remains about their action (economic sanctions and the cessation of oil purchase) against Erbil.

To sum it up: President Erdogan declared war on the Syrian Kurds but prevented them from losing Kobane; declared war on Assad but supported him to recover Aleppo; declared war on terrorism but allowed ISIS and al-Qaeda to enjoy all support from Turkey and bought oil from ISIS; threatened the Iraqi Kurds but still bought their oil- and kept its hundreds of trucks queuing up on their borders; promised to keep al-Qaeda under control in Idlib during the last Astana meeting, but allowed these to carry out more military offensives afterwards.

It is obvious that the Iraqi Kurds are aware of Ankara’s unstable and continuous changing of policy, very confident that any other measures by surrounding countries (Iraq and Iran) can be easily overcome in the future, as long as Erdogan is offering alternatives. The cost is that the Iraqi Kurds fall into Ankara’s hands and control, but it looks like Barzani is happy with this outcome; as long as he has his new state, pushing its place onto the Middle Eastern map, right in the middle.

Iran and Iraq:

The Kurdish referendum pushed Iraq into the arms of Iran when the relationship between the Iraqi Prime Minister HaidarAbadi and the Iranian officials was at its lowest level. Today Abadi (and most Iraqis) sees in Iran the only sincere partner to count on, and can rely on the Iranian Army and Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the case of any military escalation against Kurdistan, particularly in the disputed Iraqi cities, with Kirkuk at the top of the list.

Baghdad is confident that Barzani didn’t take this step without a blessing from the Americans, expected to become more visible in the coming months, according to Iraqi officials in the Iraqi capital. It seems Washington decided to swap its relationship with Baghdad with that of Erbil because, apparently, it won’t be able to support both at the same time.

Supporting Erbil is more attractive to the US and its regional allies (particularly Saudi Arabia), in the hope that the Kurdish Iraqi move would trigger the appetite of the Kurdish Iranians (and the Syrian Kurds who are already on this same path). If this happens and we observe an uprising in Iran (the Saudis already promised to support any unrest in Iran), the Iranian economy and that of the government of Baghdad will be both under severe pressure.

Iran supported Barzani in 2014 and provided him with weapons (at a time when the US was denying any support to Iraq, during the 6 months after the fall of Mosul in 2014), but it is today in an undeclared war against Erbil, fully behind Baghdad’s measures and supporting future escalation and punitive steps.

No one can wind back the clock to before the Kurdish referendum. However, it is still possible for Barzani to avoid contributing further mess to this hectic Middle East. He could indeed consider all these issues as an unnecessary concern- similar to a storm in a teacup. Unfortunately, it seems the Kurdish leader is determined to continue his path, denying any immediate independence intention, yet without excluding it.




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