A military drill conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) near the Iraqi border has been interpreted by experts as a stern warning to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as the autonomous administration plans to hold an independence vote on Sept. 25. The Turkish military stated that the exercise started on Monday and would simultaneously continue in tandem with counterterror operations in the region. Commenting on the military drill, a Middle East expert at the Center For Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) Bilgay Duman said: "The drill conducted by the Turkish Armed Forces is a stern warning to the KRG that Turkey is willing to take any steps necessary regarding its own national security, as President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan recently stated that Turkey will not sit and watch the developments following the referendum."
Turkey unequivocally rejected the KRG's steps toward a referendum, arguing that it would only ignite violence in the region while conveying its concerns regarding the controversial referendum decision itself. Ankara stressed that preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq is of utmost importance. Meanwhile, the Iraqi central government and Iran have also warned Barzani of the consequences of this referendum, which is likely to lead to further conflicts. However, KRG leader Masoud Barzani insisted on the decision and announced that they were ready to pay any price for it, ignoring pressure from Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said over the weekend that Turkey will not allow Iraq's territorial integrity to be compromised as Ankara shares a 350-kilometer-long (217-mile-long) border with Baghdad. The president also said that Turkey's ultimate stance will be determined in the meeting of the National Security Council on Sept. 22.
Expert on security policy Mete Yarar told Daily Sabah that as the timing of the drill continues to gain attention, "it is a sign that from the past to the present, Turkey will not stand by the incidents in Iraq which will affect the fate of the country."
Yarar said that after the failed coup attempt, Turkey deployed a brigade to the region, pointing out the military build-up there. During that time, there were debates on Bashiqa as Turkey had troops stationed there, he added. Yarar went on to say that the recent military drill was the implementation of a decision that was made one year ago.
As Turkey signals that it will not condone developments in the region with the recent military drill, Duman said in the wake of the referendum, the KRG could face backlash from Turkey in the form of possible political, military, or economic sanctions.
Duman said Turkey previously conducted operations in Syria and it might conduct an air operation in Iraq, as well. "Closing the airfield and the Habur border gate are some of the sanctions we might consider," Duman added.Referring to the possibility of closing the Habur border gate, Duman said there have been talks regarding the issue and, rather than Habur, there are two alternatives that can be used as new border gates in a small region within Tal Afar, according to Duman.
Pointing out the significance of the border gates for the KRG as it earns some $400 million per year, Duman said, "Two years ago, Turkey closed the border for the purpose of its counterterrorism operations. As a result, the KRG announced that it had lost $20 million in only 22 days."
Terror and security expert Abdullah Ağar commented on Turkey's reaction to the planned referendum, saying that Ankara repeatedly voiced its criticism and has so far warned the KRG via diplomatic and political channels.Ağar said that in the face of potential threats to Turkey's sovereignty, deploying forces with armored units to the said region over the last year has been helpful, asserting that now the activated military deployment to the region adds a further sense of security. "Now, Turkey will show more than merely a political reaction," he said, point out that further steps must be taken by Turkey.
KRG leader Barzani has long denied criticism ahead of the referendum. Meanwhile, Iraqi parliamentarians voted last week to reject the nonbinding referendum planned to be held on Sept. 25, authorizing the Iraqi prime minister to take all measures necessary to preserve Iraq's unity.
A "yes" vote in the independence referendum would not spell immediate independence for the Kurdish region, since the referendum does not have legal force. However, Kurdish officials say they will use it to pressure the Iraqi government in Baghdad to come to the negotiating table and formalize their independence bid.
Ankara previously called the referendum decision a "grave mistake," warning of further repercussions if the vote goes ahead as planned. The Baghdad government seems adamant on preventing the referendum at all costs, as well. If the Iraqi population is "threatened by the use of force outside the rule of law, then we will intervene militarily," Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said.