A Kurdish man casts his vote at a polling station during the referendum vote in Erbil, Iraq, on Sept. 25, 2017. The Iraqi Kurds on Monday cast their votes in a referendum that will determine the independence of the Kurdish region and the disputed areas that are currently under de facto Kurdish control. (Xinhua/Khalil Dawood)
ISTANBUL, Sept. 26 (Xinhua) -- As Iraq's neighbors are cooperating with Baghdad to impose sanctions against the Iraqi Kurds over an independence referendum, Turkish analysts downplayed the possibility of a military intervention.
Latest figures showed that at least 93 percent of the Kurdish voters favored independence of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region from Iraq.
The regional balances don't allow medium-sized countries to take up arms against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Hasan Koni, a professor of public international law at Istanbul Kultur University, told Xinhua.
"It is not probable that Turkey, Iran and Iraq would militarily intervene against the Kurds," Koni added.
Turkey and Iran, two immediate neighbors which have borders with the Kurdistan region, are seen as medium-sized powers, while Iraq itself has been weakened by years of bloody civil war following the U.S. occupation in 2003.
Celalettine Yavuz, a former staff officer in the Turkish military, also believed that the chances are slim for Turkey and Iran to militarily intervene in the Kurdistan region.
Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations in Ankara-based Middle East Technical University, echoed Yavuz, saying "not only the United States and Israel, but the whole world would oppose such an intervention."
Most analysts thought that the U.S. would, despite its opposition to the referendum, block a possible military intervention.
The Iraqi central government is not considered to be in a position to militarily intervene either, as it gets support from the U.S. in its fight against the terror group Islamic State (IS).
"Should Baghdad take up arms against the Kurds, the United States may stop supporting Iraq against IS," Koni observed, noting the Kurds could also give weapons to the IS, which would upset Baghdad.
The Iraqi military, already weakened by years of battle against the militant group, is not strong enough to succeed in such a military operation, said Yavuz.
IRAQI GOVERNMENT, NEIGHBORS JOINED HANDS IN TAKING COUNTERMEASURES
As the Iraqi Kurds went to the polls on Monday, Ankara and Tehran took coordinated steps with Baghdad to exert pressure on the Kurds.
Turkey and Iran, both housing a large Kurdish population, strongly oppose the Iraqi Kurdish referendum on secession, arguing it would lead to further chaos and ethnic clashes in the turmoil-hit region.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed to do whatever is necessary to protect the territorial integrity of the country. He only underlined that the government would use force in case unrest erupts in the disputed areas as result of the referendum.
Baghdad demanded in an order to the Kurdish government on Sunday that the control of all airports and border gates be handed over to the central government. It also asked all foreign countries to deal with the central government on all issues including oil sale.
Iran closed on Sunday its air space to flights to and from the Iraqi Kurdish region upon Baghdad's request.
Turkey started military maneuvers along its border with the Kurdish region a week before the referendum, but it was no more than muscle flexing for show only, Bagci said.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Monday that Turkey has been working on political, economic and military measures against the Kurdish region.
But he added that the military maneuvers on the border do not mean that Ankara would get involved in a war.
But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a more hardline stance, implying that Ankara could launch a military operation against the Kurdish government.
"We might unexpectedly land (with troops in northern Iraq) one night," Erdogan said.
However, analysts said Erdogan's remarks are seen by some as aimed more at domestic audiences to give the public an impression that the government is doing its best against the Kurdish move.
"Too much thunder, but no rain," commented Bagci.
KURDISH INDEPENDENCE BID NOT TO BE STRANGLED EASILY
Turkey can do nothing at this point to deter the Iraqi Kurds, Bagci argued, noting that it is Ankara, as the KRG's leading economic partner, which has paved the way for the KRG to feel confident enough to claim independence.
Even if Ankara is to intervene militarily in the Kurdish region, an invitation from Baghdad is needed, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday.
Analysts, however, are not so gloomy about the Kurds' options if they are imposed with economic sanctions.
"The U.S. and Israel would make sure that Kurds get their needs by air," Koni said, noting Washington has several military bases in northern Iraq.
KRG President Masoud Barzani must have estimated that his region would be facing such an embargo, added Koni.
"The Kurds may find a way of selling their oil via Jordan, Syria and Israel," Yavuz remarked. Israel is the only country which openly supports the emergence of a Kurdish state.
No sanctions would be able to push the Kurds to back down, Bagci noted.
The world's major powers like the United States and Russia only said they support the territorial integrity of Iraq, without raising voice against the Kurds.
Washington called for the referendum to be postponed on the grounds that it would damage the fight against the IS by creating a new conflict in the region.
With the U.S. help, the Iraqi Kurds have expanded the territory under their control over the years after they pushed away IS militants from some towns in northern Iraq. People living in those towns, including Kirkuk, voted in the referendum as well.
Turkish and Iranian presidents have spoken over the phone respectively with their Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about latest developments in the region, and Putin is scheduled to arrive in Ankara on Thursday for talks with Erdogan.
For his part, Erdogan will be in Tehran for talks on Oct. 4. Prior to his trip, Turkish Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar will visit the Iranian capital.
Turkey and Iran see the emergence of a Kurdish state in the region as an existential threat, given that both have a sizeable Kurdish population at home.
Turkey has been fighting a Kurdish separatist movement for over 30 years, while Iran is faced with a similar problem, though to a lesser degree.
In the war-torn Syria, another neighbor of Iraq, Kurdish militia forces have carved out three autonomous cantons along the Turkish border. The KRG region in northern Iraq and the cantons in northern Syria are de facto linked through the border.
The referendum result itself will not mean an automatic declaration of independence, as voters were simply asked to say whether they favor separation of the Kurdistan region from Iraq.
A "yes" vote will give the KRG, however, the green light to declare independence when circumstances are deemed suitable in the future.
Barzani recently said the talks over independence with Baghdad may take up to two years, adding the Kurds want to continue their relationship with Baghdad as good neighbors.
But the process "would lead in the longer run to the establishment of the Greater Kurdistan," observed Koni.