Through friendly warnings on one side of the spectrum and going to extremes on the other, Turkey has done its utmost to persuade Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) leader Masoud Barzani to cancel the Sept. 25 independence referendum.
A lot of high-level officials were sent to Irbil in the process. When Barzani ignored these friendly warnings and moved ahead with the vote, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tried to explain until Sept. 25, in increasingly sharp language, that the referendum was a grave mistake with disastrous consequences for the whole region.
But that did not help. Barzani insisted on not understanding the importance of these warnings and the folly of the undertaking he was going to take. Meanwhile, he also tried to influence the media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) within Turkey. There was an effort to portray the incident as if Turkey had an issue with Kurds or to frame the issue as one about the right to self-determination. We have witnessed an effort to discredit Turkey's legitimate warnings either through these arguments or Kurdish nationalism disguised as Islamism. The purpose here was to confuse people in Turkey.
However, Barzani's control through peshmerga over places like Kirkuk, which is not included in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region according to the Iraqi Constitution, was ensured by capitalizing on an unprecedented power vacuum. That vulnerability could be removed to a certain extent only through the consent of countries in the region within a participatory process. Taking advantage of that power vacuum and engineering a demographic change in the region under the guise of fighting Daesh could lead to a disaster. When the referendum was added to the picture and disputed areas like Kirkuk were included in it, the genie was out of the bottle.
Why is Turkey objecting?
First of all, Turkey has always defended the principle of territorial integrity in the cases of both Syria and Iraq, being the only country to behave honestly in line with this principle. Though every disturbance along its 1,251-kilometer southern border is related to its security and interests, Turkey has never behaved opportunistically but acted responsibly. It has shouldered the burden of more than three million Syrians and Iraqis, alone. It has received these unfortunate people with open arms, spending $30 billion.
Meanwhile, the PKK, its Syrian affiliate, the People's Protection Units (YPG), and Daesh militants infiltrated the border, carrying out bombings in cities and killing civilians, including babies. In other words, Turkey has actually had a legitimate right to launch military operations with its strong army in these two countries in line with international agreements. It could have abused this right to expand its territory and gain control of oil and natural gas fields. After all, several countries that are situated thousands of kilometers away have been in Syria and Iraq for oil. So who could have criticized Turkey if it did the same?
But Turkey has not done this. Though it bore the brunt of the civil war and terror, losing billions of dollars in economic activity, it has refrained from intervening in these countries for self-interest. In fact, we can even say that this principled stance was exaggerated a bit. Terrorist organizations within these two border countries were becoming state-like and targeting Turkey, simultaneously.
For a long time, Turkey has tried to warn the U.S. and the coalition countries about that critical situation. Meanwhile, Barzani's referendum could unleash serious ethnic and religious conflicts, along with a violation of the Iraqi Constitution, bringing about very dire consequences for Turkey. It seemed that the aim was to surround Turkey with a hostile terror state in Syria and Iraq.
Banners of Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK's imprisoned leader, unfurled in Raqqa left no doubt about the connection between the Democratic Union Party (PYD)/YPG and the PKK. No matter how many front groups were established with different acronyms, it was impossible for the PYD/YPG to create a terror state that opens to the Mediterranean and has it accepted as legitimate.
Especially with Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey has swept Daesh further south in a short amount of time, neutralizing 4,000 militants. As full control of the border area was ensured, Western nations and especially Europe breathed a sigh of relief thanks to Turkey. As a result, there was no need to clear the way for the PYD by citing the Daesh threat. In fact, Daesh was occupying a place that the PYD needed to seize. Without a fight, Daesh then left it to the PYD, actually to the PKK. The plot was exposed, and Turkey has put an end to the game with Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkey has made the said corridor virtually impossible with the subsequent Idlib operation.
The newly hatched game plan was to be implemented through Barzani. A satellite Kurdish state would be established in Levant, the area stretching from Iraq to Syria's Mediterranean coast, which is also the route for an alternative pipeline intended to bypass Turkey. The one to be deployed for this purpose was Barzani with his party and armed forces, the Peshmerga, which is regarded more favorably in Turkey compared to the PKK. The Peshmerga, whose reputation is not as tarnished as the PKK's, can influence devout Kurds.
So, it was intended to kill not two but many birds with one stone. Since Daesh was defeated, the time was ripe to share the bounty. Turkey was considered unable to discard Barzani or respond harshly. Turkey's Kurds could be influenced through empty rhetoric like the right to self-determination. Anyway, after accomplishing the goal of creating the satellite state, the elimination of Barzani is the easiest of tasks.
Regarding both Syria and Iraq, we have always tried to explain it simply. Turkey's redlines are the corridor issue in Syria of turning areas like Sinjar into another Qandil, the redrawing of borders and the disintegration of countries. Unless it collapses or is occupied, or destroyed, Turkey will resist this against all the odds. Indeed, Turkey knows very well that the July 15 coup attempt of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) was orchestrated by the powers that want to redesign the region.
The new target of the old plan
A century ago another scheme was imposed on the region, sucking Turks, Kurds and Armenians in its tailspin. This time the blood of innocent Kurds was to be shed for the new plan. Barzani made a mistake by pursuing his "childhood dream," and he has put the Kurds at risk. We see the state of things now. The Sept. 25 referendum is already history. Barzani will be eliminated. The Kurdish autonomous region will be divided in two between Barzani and Talabani and not without bloodshed. On the other hand, Barzani lost regions like Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu, and Baghdad gained the initiative.
But Turkey had done its best to work with Barzani to restore permanent peace and stability in the region, taking serious risks. When Barzani could not pay his civil servants' salaries after the central government had cut the KRG's budget share, Turkey gave him credit. Turkey wanted the region to be a basin of prosperity and peace, and at the same time prevent an ethnic/sectarian conflict. It was the only country with the honesty and capability to achieve this.
However, Ankara has been stabbed in the back twice, first by the PKK during its disarmament process and later by Barzani. Turkey has a reputation of trustworthiness in its foreign policy. It avoids unpredictability. It does not try to take advantage of a situation. It values pledges, peace and sincerity. It's not because Turkey is naïve, for it believes in honest alliances. If the world is to avoid a disaster, other countries have to adopt Turkey's course of action.
Another characteristic of Turkey, however, is its ability to make very courageous and surprising moves. After foiling a serious coup attempt with civilian resistance on July 15, 2016, Turkey entered Jarablus 40 days later and conducted a very successful cross-border operation. Dominating the region for centuries has increased Turkey's certain skills considerably.
Moreover, Turkey is on morally superior ground. No one can lecture Turkey on Syria and Iraq. The U.S. entered Iraq when it should not have, and it left when it should not have. The U.S. has not only left Turkey alone in Syria, but it has also provided the PKK's Syrian wings with thousands of truckloads of heavy weaponry. The PYD/PKK will fail in Syria. Hosting FETÖ leader Fetullah Gülen in Pennsylvania is no different from hosting Baghdadi in Ankara. The U.S. will pay the price before history because of both moves.
Those trying to operate in the region despite Turkey will meet the same fate as Barzani. Whoever runs the risk of alienating such a peerless ally as Turkey is bound to back off.