Regional powers and US increase pressure against Kurdish referendum

Ankara is concerned that an independence vote for northern Iraq could become a model for northern Syria.

Mounting pressure. Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani (R) receives US Defence Secretary James Mattis in Erbil, on August 22. (AFP)

2017/08/27 Issue: 121 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Thomas Seibert

Washington- The Kurdish independence vote in northern Iraq, scheduled for September 25, is mixing up alliances around the Middle East and has major regional powers and the United States increasing pres­sure on Kurdish authorities to post­pone or cancel the vote.

In a sign of the growing concern in Washington that the referendum could create a new conflict in a re­gion troubled by war and instability, US Defence Secretary James Mattis visited Erbil on August 22 for talks with Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Central Command commander US Army General Joseph Votel also pressed the KRG to think again.

Iraq’s central government is strongly opposed to the referen­dum as are many of the country’s Arabs and Turkmen. There are fears among some of Iraq’s pro-independ­ence Kurds that the timing of the referendum is meant to consolidate Barzani’s power in Kurdistan.

Mattis stressed that the referen­dum would be a distraction from the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) but Barzani has not budged, even if fresh talks between Erbil and the Iraqi government in Baghdad are possible.

KRG officials say the referendum would not weaken the fight against ISIS. The KRG’s military forces, the peshmerga, played a major role in stopping an ISIS advance in northern Iraq in 2014 and have been receiving Western military aid to strengthen the fight against the jihadists.

The prospect of an emerging Kurdish state, a dream for many Kurds since world powers proposed an independent Kurdish entity after the first world war, is rattling Iraq’s neighbours Turkey and Iran, which have sizeable Kurdish minorities of their own.

The leader of Turkey’s national­ists, Devlet Bahceli, suggested the KRG referendum should be officially labelled a cause for war by Ankara but Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim dismissed the idea. Turkey has been enjoying close ties with the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, which has become a major trading partner for Turkey.

Despite its good relations with the KRG, Ankara does not want to see an independent northern Iraq. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavuso­glu travelled to Baghdad and Erbil to stress, he said, that the “future of the Kurds lies in a united Iraq.”

Ankara is concerned that an in­dependence vote for northern Iraq could become a model for north­ern Syria, where Kurds have cre­ated zones of autonomy along the Turkish border. Ankara sees those Kurds as affiliated with the Kurdis­tan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against Turkey since the 1980s.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reiterated that Ankara would not allow a Kurdish state to develop in northern Syria. The Turk­ish government also said it would not recognise a Kurdish state on KRG territory.

The referendum and activities of Kurdish rebels in the region have led to a rapprochement between Tur­key and regional rival Iran. The two governments agreed during a recent visit of Iran’s military chief, General Mohammad Bagheri, to Ankara that the independence vote could be destabilising for the region.

The referendum is also opposed by the PKK, whose militants have bases in northern Iraq despite the KRG’s objections. The PKK-affiliated Yazidi militia, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), said it would not allow the referendum to take place in the areas that it controls.

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

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