A boy rides a bicycle sporting the flag of Kurdistan in Tuz Khurmato, Iraq, on September 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Thaier Al-Sudani
A boy rides a bicycle sporting the flag of Kurdistan in Tuz Khurmato, Iraq, on September 24, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Thaier Al-Sudani

The recent referendum for a “Free Kurdistan” in northern Iraq is another crucial link in a long chain of events that will further fracture and bleed the Middle East region. And caught in the middle is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Many in the West are tired of Erdogan’s Ottoman revivalism, but somehow, he has outsmarted them up to now. It is said that he has dealt with opposition with an iron fist. Still, it is quite a feat to remain in power once the proponents of the “new Middle East” want you gone.

And the new Middle East is coming whether Erdogan (below) likes it or not. War is simmering in Turkey’s back yard. The second phase of the Arab Spring, the making of the new Middle East, has begun.

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The heart of the Kurd problem goes back to a secret 1916 agreement  among the French, British and Russian empires that drew the current boundaries of the Middle Eastern countries (except Israel, which was a later development).

The Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the Kurds among Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey in a contiguous region separated only by state boundaries. But despite these state boundaries, Kurds are deeply connected, extending all kinds of support to one another, and are one of the largest stateless ethnic groups in the world. Kurds became US allies in the 1990-91 Gulf War, and their importance for the United States was substantially increased in post-2003 Iraq.

The Kurdish Peshmerga are now the single most important on-ground ally of the United States against ISIS, both in Iraq and Syria. The US has, in recent years, armed the Kurds in both of those countries to the teeth, and nothing could be more unnerving than this for governments in the region that have kept Kurds marginalized for decades.

The referendum for “Free Kurdistan” in northern Iraq, which includes oil-rich Kirkuk, is unacceptable for the regional central governments. Non-Kurds in the region see it as the first step toward a domino effect of Kurdish separatism in all four countries having a Kurdish presence. As Kurds in Iraq have voted in favor of a Free Kurdistan, the Kurds in Syria (which Turkey sees as terrorists), supported by the US, are implementing a plan to establish an independent Kurdish parliamentary system in Syria.

In the eyes of respective central governments, the question of Kurdish self-determination and independence is not just a matter of territorial integrity but a path to further multi-dimensional war in a region already devastated by years of ethnic and sectarian civil war.

Marginally, the United States and other Western countries came out against the September 25 referendum in the Kurdish and disputed territories in northern Iraq. However, the criticism fell short of opposing the referendum itself, criticizing its timing instead. This coupled with Israel’s open support for the Kurdistan referendum is translated in the region as America’s “hidden agenda” aimed at further dividing and weakening any opposition to US interests, including Israel.

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Peshmerga forces cast their ballots in the Kurdish Regional Government’s controversial independence referendum at a military polling station in Rashkin village of Erbil, Iraq, on September 25, 2017.

All four relevant central governments have explicitly declared their resentment of and frustration with the Kurdish referendum. However, it is Turkey and Iraq that have exhibited an increasingly belligerent tone toward the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.

Already, the Iraqi military has joined Turkish forces in military exercises along the Iraq-Turkey border just across from KRG territory. Some fear that these acts of intimidation will eventually transform into joint military action by Turkey, Iran and Iraq. But this convergence of interests is superficial and does not transcend into the realm of a concrete alliance. In fact, chances are that any military action by Turkey, Iraq and/or Iran either individually or collectively would  backfire ignominiously.

For one thing, a military action by any of the regional state actors would force the Peshmerga to shift its anti-ISIS focus toward the aggressor, providing the retreating militants a chance to regroup. Neither the United States nor Russia would want that to happen.

Baghdad, despite its tough rhetoric, has a weak government with a poor record on anti-ISIS operations and its treatment of ethnic divisions within Iraq. Without external support, the Iraqi government has as much chance of successfully acting against the Peshmerga as the Kabul government in Afghanistan has against the Taliban. Iraq will not act without external backing, and that leaves it with no concrete option but eventually to concede to the Kurds.

The Syrian government has too much on its plate to act unilaterally  against the Kurds. And since the Russians have an interest in the Kurds in Iraq – and the Kirkuk oilfield under their control – it is more than likely that Damascus will try to keep the Kurds happy on the Syrian side of the border. This reduces half of the problems for Iraqi Kurds.

Turkey, on the other hand, had been allied with the KRG of Masoud Barzani for a long time, even training the Peshmerga. And returning the favor, Barzani has been opposed to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish party on the Turkish side. Erdogan is now forced by domestic dynamics to talk tough to the Iraqi Kurds, but he knows he doesn’t have any real options.

Any military action by Turkey against the KRG would not only jeopardize its recent warming up of relations with Russia, but it would also put it in direct conflict with Russian interests in oil under KRG control, the same oil Turkey is exporting. The only real option Turkey has is to stop selling the oil, at its own economic peril.

Iran might act against Barzani’s government through Baghdad and the Iraqi militias under its influence. But this is where the support from the US and Israel will come in for the KRG. Another important Middle Eastern player, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, might also want payback for Yemen in Iran’s own back yard.

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Barzani (above) is a very shrewd politician; some even call him an opportunist. He has probably calculated that this complex regional equation provides him the perfect opportunity to strike.

For all these governments, the Kurdistan problem has put them between a rock and a hard place. By acting against the Kurds, they risk a greater war converting the proxy wars into direct inter-states confrontation. And by not acting against them, they would provide Iraqi Kurds the chance to declare freedom, and their brethren on the Turkish, Syrian and Iranian side would ultimately follow their lead. The result at the end of that path is also very bloody.

Whoever thinks the United States is losing its influence in the region is mistaken. The emergence of Free Kurdistan as an independent country allied with the US and Israel is inevitable. The protracted proxy wars for dominance in the Middle East are finally going to come home for Iran and for Erdogan’s Turkey.

It’s a perfect win-win situation for the hawks in Pentagon.

Bilal Khan

Bilal Khan is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of North Texas. His research interests include IR Theory, Foreign Policy Analysis, Conflicts, South and Central Asia.

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