The Kurdish referendum: more than nationalist rhetoric
The Kurdish issue is far more complex and sophisticated than the simplistic nationalist rhetoric, made fashionable by Europeans-- and which all actors in the game feel compelled to employ and have us believe
On the northern Iraqi side, Barzani’s forces were a major presence, often fighting Daesh with Turkish support. It is relevant to note here that Barzani has been uneasy about the rise of the PKK in Syria and the party being the recipient of great favours from the U.S., its main mentor. The fact is that there has also been American support for the Gorran Movement, an opponent to Barzani, which did not vote in favour of the referendum.
Finally, Barzani allowed the PKK’s presence in Kandil, the mountainous region, 200 km from the Turkish border, since 1998, enabling it to organise its activities in Turkey and Iran from there. After 2015, Barzani, feeling unsettled by the increased power of the PKK in Syria, severed relations with its leadership in Kandil, choosing instead to support the Turkish forces fighting the PKK.
Looking at this intricate web of politics, one might conclude that Barzani may have held the referendum, not necessarily to have it lead to the formation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, but primarily to show the new American administration who is boss in the current murky state of Kurdish politics. Or to re-assert his and his family’s historic claim to the leadership of the Kurds and of Kurdish nationalism.
It’s a claim that the Barzani family has made since the Cold War. Barzani’s father was a loyal friend of the CİA and the U.S. government and he could not let that position be appropriated by the PKK, which had ties with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and is a new recruit to the western alliance.
The Turkish government is probably aware of what Barzani was trying to do. It is obvious that Barzani does not want to disrupt his many-sided relationship with Turkey. It is not likely to be significantly altered, especially not in terms of trade flows, despite the much publicised movement of Turkish troops along its border with northern Iraq, joined by Iraqi central government troops.
On the other hand, Erdogan, the master politician, is appeasing the rising nationalist sentiment within Turkey following the referendum, threatening a surprise attack on Iraq on the northern side. In doing so, he is asserting Turkey’s leadership position in the region, seeking to ensure the security of the Turkmens and other groups in Kerkuk, a major city, and that the PKK will think twice if it is jumping on the nationalist bandwagon, and contemplating any move toward declaring autonomy in Syria.
At the same time, with little support from the western alliance, the Turkish government is also trying to establish ties in the region with Iran, with a large Kurdish population that is threatened by both Barzani’s move, the PKK and the Iraqi central government.
There is much that bears watching in the coming months: the struggle for leadership among the Kurds, how this struggle will play out in Turkey’s relations with the West (the U.S. and Germany) and what this implies for the West in terms of its relations in the oil-rich West Asia region. It will also be interesting to observe the impact it can have on Turkey’s economic and political relations, which are increasingly looking to Russia, and further eastward to India and China.
It also remains to be seen whether the region will be caught up in nationalist rhetoric, encouraged by the big powers, which, in the past, did not serve the people of West Asia, causing nothing but bloodshed. Or will it return to the sophisticated pattern of alliances and sub-alliances, transcending national, ethnic and religious lines, and speaking to the survival instincts of the regional actors? The latter, which prevailed briefly 2010 onwards, appears to have been bypassed by big-power politics for the time being. One can only hope for a return to politics which is the way of sanity for the region and its people.
Huricihan Islamoglu was a Visiting Fellow at Gateway House. She is a Professor of Economic History at Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey and a Senior Fellow, Institut d’Etudes Avancees de Nantes, Nantes, France.
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