Spotlight: Iraqi Kurds' independence bid threatens Turkish integrity: analysts

Source: Xinhua| 2017-09-14 20:29:25|Editor: Zhou Xin
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ISTANBUL, Sept. 14 (Xinhua) -- Amid criticism against the Turkish government for not forcibly opposing an upcoming independence referendum by the Iraqi Kurds, many fear the Kurdish bid may lead to Turkey's break-up in the long run.

"This referendum is a first step that will set the stage for Turkey's disintegration," Haldun Solmazturk, a retired general with the Turkish military, told Xinhua.

Some world powers are known to have plans since the fall of the Ottoman Empire following World War I to create a Greater Kurdistan that would extend to several countries in the region, while the emergence of a Kurdish state is widely perceived as an existential threat to Turkey with a Kurdish population of nearly 20 million.

Turkey would suffer the most from the Greater Kurdistan project, maintained Solmazturk, who currently chairs the Incek debates at the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is scheduled to vote on independence on Sept. 25, despite opposition by the Iraqi central government and some neighboring countries including Turkey and Iran.

The Iraqi Kurds are expected to vote in favor of secession by a large majority, although some Kurdish parties are against the move.

"This referendum is not a development that would work in Turkey's favor," Hasan Koni, a professor of public international law, told Xinhua.

"This process would lead in the longer run to the establishment of the Greater Kurdistan," observed Koni who teaches at Istanbul's Kultur University.

The referendum result itself will not mean an automatic declaration of independence as voters are simply being asked about their views on independence from Iraq.

A "yes" vote will give the KRG the green light to declare independence when circumstances are deemed suitable in the future.

Top Turkish government officials have repeatedly voiced opposition to the referendum that it would lead to further instability in the turmoil-hit region.

Ankara has not, however, signaled that it would take such punitive measures as closing its border with the KRG or stopping exporting Kurdish oil via Turkey should the Kurdish region press ahead with its referendum plan.

Due to this fact, some remain unconvinced about the sincerity of the remarks made by Ankara regarding the independence move.

The government's reaction is no more than remarks on paper that have no real significance, Ozturk Yilmaz, a deputy chairman from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), claimed on Tuesday.

Yilmaz, a former diplomat, also warned that the Kurdish referendum may have dangerous consequences in the region, as he argued that the vote would open the Pandora's box.

The Iraqi Arabs and Turkmens as well as neighboring Iran are strongly opposing the Kurdish attempt.

On Tuesday, the Iraqi parliament rejected the proposed referendum as unconstitutional and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed the government would never allow the country to be divided.

KRG President Massoud Barzani said the following day, however, that he does not recognize the parliament's decision.

In an interview on Monday, Barzani also indicated that the Kurds would move to draw their own borders if the central government does not recognize the referendum.

"The government may be remaining silent (about the referendum), but the risks for regional clashes to take place, which would result in an existential threat for Turkey, are getting increasingly higher," said Yilmaz.

He maintained that the Turkish government is not seriously in touch neither with Iran nor Iraq about the Kurds' move.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has in recent months voiced opposition to the referendum, had chosen to apparently ignore a question about the issue this week.

According to media reports on Tuesday, the president was asked by a group of journalists to comment on the KRG's refusal to back away from the referendum and on claims that Iraqi Turkmens are being encouraged to migrate to the United States.

Erdogan simply replied that it would be wrong to give an emotional reaction without knowing the full details. He was only touching on the claim about the Turkmens, but leaving the referendum issue unanswered.

Gursel Erol, a CHP deputy, claimed last week on local Halk TV that the Turkish government's relative silence on the issue is an indication of negotiations and a deal done between the government and Barzani.

Erol also drew attention to the fact that the Kurdistan flag was raised at the airport when the KRG president arrived in Turkey last February. The Kurdish flag was raised as well when Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim met with Barzani during the visit.

The government and President Erdogan would not have remained so passive toward the Kurdish referendum if it were not for promises already made to Barzani under an earlier deal, claimed Solmazturk.

Arguing it is not possible for the government not to foresee the looming threat against Turkey, he added "this government is not able to move because of its engagements with Barzani."

Other than Iraq and Turkey, Iran and Syria have a sizable Kurdish minority on their soils as well.

The emergence of a Kurdish state in Iraq is expected to whip up the appetite for independence of the Kurds in neighboring countries.

Turkey has been fighting against a Kurdish separatism at home for over 30 years, while the Kurdish militia forces in Syria, known as the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), have carved out three autonomous cantons along the Turkish border during the Syrian civil war.

The area under the KRG control in northern Iraq and the cantons governed by the YPG in northern Syria are de facto linked through the border.

A united Kurdish state in Iraq and Syria would not only encourage Kurdish separatism in Turkey, but also physically cut off Ankara almost totally from the Arab world.

The U.S., a major ally of both the KRG and YPG, says the referendum should be postponed. Israel, for its part, supports the emergence of a Kurdish state in the region.

Both Koni and Solmazturk feel that the Kurds can not have pushed for the referendum without the backing of major powers such as the U.S and Britain. The KRG seems to have got the green light from Russia as well.

Under the current circumstances, neither Iraq nor Iran can take up arms against the Kurds, Koni said.

The Iraqi military, already worn out by years of civil war, has been fighting against the Islamic State. Iran is a close ally of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.

Solmazturk is expecting increasing instability in the region but not a war following a possible declaration of independence by the Iraqi Kurds. The U.S. and Israel would not allow a war while Iran cannot do anything by itself, he argued.

In his view, the process of Kurdish independence is at an irreversible point for the moment.

To make things worse, the Kurds are also laying claim to some territories, including oil-rich Kirkuk, which are designated as disputed in the Iraqi Constitution.

Barzani warned that "if any group wants to change the reality of Kirkuk using force, they should expect that every single Kurd will be ready to fight over it."

Kirkuk is currently controlled by the Kurdish peshmerga forces.

"If Turkey would oppose the referendum, then it would be confronting the U.S.," Koni said, noting that Ankara's ties with Washington are already strained.

"That's why the government can't raise its voice," he added.

Both analysts feel that Ankara is also open to blackmail by Washington due to an ongoing legal case regarding alleged violations of a UN embargo against Iran.

Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman, and Hakan Atilla, deputy general manager of Turkish public bank Halkbank, are currently in jail in the U.S. facing charges of violating UN sanctions.

The U.S. court handling the case has lately issued an arrest warrant for Zafer Caglayan, a former Turkish economy minister, over the same charges.

Ankara, while denying any involvement in violation of the sanctions, described the arrest warrant for Caglayan as part of a "very dirty game" against Turkey.

It has been circulating in recent years that the Turkish government may be hoping to unite with the Iraqi Kurds under a sort of federal structure after the Kurds break away from Baghdad.

Analysts have argued, however, that such a scenario has no solid foundation at all, as the world's major powers would not allow a Turkish expansion into oil-rich northern Iraq.

Turkey would not benefit from such a scenario in the long run even if it turns into a reality, many believe.

The Kurds may break ties with Turkey in about 10 to 15 years and move to establish a Greater Kurdistan after getting Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast, Koni said, citing Israel's interest in Kurdish independence as "the most striking evidence for that."

"Nobody who seriously knows the history of the region as well as the major powers' plans regarding the region would ever bother to discuss such a thing," observed Solmazturk.