Kurds seize initiative in independence vote
Daniel Dombey discusses what the Iraqi Kurds hoped to gain from the referendum and why President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused them of treachery with the FT's Erika Solomon in Irbil and Mehul Srivastava in Istanbul.
Presented by Daniel Dombey and produced by Fiona Symon
From the Financial Times in London, I'm Daniel Dombey. And this is FT News.
The Kurdish regional government of Northern Iraq has unnerved the markets and angered Baghdad and Ankara by holding a referendum that delivered a big vote for independence. In response, Turkey, normally an ally of the Iraqi Kurds, has denounced what it sees as treachery, and warned that it could shut the region off from world energy markets. That has pushed world oil prices up to levels not seen for a couple of years.
So what is at stake in the latest attempt to redraw the controversial borders imposed on the Middle East by colonial powers a century ago? I'm joined by Erika Solomon, our Middle East correspondent, who's in Erbil, Northern Iraq, and [INAUDIBLE], our Turkey correspondent in Istanbul. Erika, why did the Kurds hold this vote?
There are two main things going on here. And one is that the Kurds feel like they have some leverage they're afraid to lose. The US has been leading an international coalition to fight ISIS, the jihadi force that's spread across Iraq and Syria. And now, they're in their final footholds in both countries. And the Kurds are worried that, once this battle ends, international attention will sort of shift away from their geopolitical ambitions. And in this time period that they have been helping the coalition fight ISIS, they have seized a very valuable piece of real estate, which is the province of Kirkuk.
Kirkuk is an oil-rich part of Iraq. And the Kurds have long claimed it as part of what they hope one day to be their state. It's also now vital to their economic plan because of its oil reserves. Iraq wants that territory back. This is all part of a region along the border between the autonomous Kurdistan region and the rest of Iraq that are called the disputed areas. And so this is really the sort of most contentious part of the whole thing, is will there be fighting, will the Iraqis try and take it back by force. And so that's why the Kurds were hoping to try and make the first move by doing this independence referendum, claiming that territory and sort of marking out their space.
The other issue is a little bit more domestic among the Kurds. There's a sense among the more cynical, sceptical elements of the Kurdistan region that President Masoud Barzani was sort of in a tight spot politically. He's now two years beyond what is supposed to be his legal presidency in the KRG. There's a lot of popular discontent right now because of how bad the situation there is economically. Many people haven't been paid salaries. And so the cynics say that this is Barzani basically trying to rally the people around the flag. So those are the two big things that are probably at play here.
[? Mehul, ?] why is this such a hot topic for Turkey? Why did we have President Erdogan responding so very angrily to this referendum?
Mr. Erdogan has a very difficult problem on his hands right now. He has spent about five or six years championing Mr. Barzani in a way as a good Kurdish partner, while fighting a Kurdish militia inside Turkey itself. In the last two years, that same war that Erika was talking about has led to this Kurdish militia called the PKK and its sister affiliates in northern Syria creating a long stretch of land just south of Turkey's border which behaves very much like an independent country of its own. Mr. Erdogan also has a huge Kurdish population in the country that has some aspirations, either federal autonomy or statehood.
So this happening in the KRG, were it to have a domino effect, would completely complicate Mr. Erdogan's plans for the next couple of years. At the same time, he feels Mr. Barzani has been-- he used the word today treacherous, because they've supported them, they've allowed them to have a pipeline that goes through to the Turkish port of [INAUDIBLE] and provides, in a way, a financial lifeline for the Barzani government. And at the same time, he sees himself as a heavyweight on the Middle East scene, especially in places like the KRG. And the idea that this referendum went through without his approval is very difficult for him. So he has been quite angry for the last few days.
Erika, what was the atmosphere like in the KRG itself on referendum day? How are Kurds themselves seeing this important act?
It was actually, I found as a journalist, quite a moving thing to watch. For Iraqi Kurds I think in particular, they've suffered a lot under the previous regime of Saddam Hussein. There were chemical weapons attacks, there were massacres, expulsions. And a lot of those people who lived through that came and went and voted yesterday. And I spoke to people who said I've seen my village destroyed three times, I've lost my parents, my siblings, everyone. And now here I am voting for independence. I never thought I'd live to see a day like this.
So people were really emotional. People lined up early. They came out well before the polls were supposed to open. This meant something on a very emotional level to Iraqi Kurds. And I think it's both something that supporters of the move have said, look how wonderful this is, and critics have said, what are you doing, you are playing with people's emotions, and this could really backfire if you don't deliver.
[? Mehul, ?] you've talked about how Mr. Erdogan sees the KRG as almost kind of the good Kurds, as opposed to what he sees as the bad Kurds, the PKK. And indeed, he's often been much closer to the Kurds of Northern Iraq than he has to Baghdad, a government with which he's had many, many confrontations. So to what extent is what he's been saying over last day or two, to what extent is it actually a real threat to really cut off the KRG from those world energy markets?
It isn't quite clear that Mr. Erdogan actually is in a position to carry through much of these threats. Now, in the last two or three years especially, there's been a lot of turmoil in Syria and Iraq. Mr. Erdogan has made significant threats that he hasn't followed through on, including we're going to go to Mosul and liberate Mosul, we're going to go to Raqqa. All these things that he has said he has never followed through on.
The reason is that this rhetoric plays really well to his domestic audience. And right now, he's in a position of trying to woo as many nationalists, staunchly patriotic voters back towards his party at a time of domestic political upheaval. So all of this plays really well to the domestic audience. He has never delivered on these before. The idea that the Turkish military may enter the KRG, which is something he's been threatening to do, is highly unlikely. Very few analysts believe that.
And cutting off the oil pipeline, that's a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face because Mr. Erdogan is trying to position Turkey as an oil [INAUDIBLE] from which pipelines from all around the Middle East for gas and for crude oil can transit through here. And to cut off one of these first pipelines right now for domestic political reasons will really, really jeopardise future pipeline process.
So there's an expectation over here that, as long as Mr. Barzani takes this vote as being non-binding, as advisory, as the process kind of slows down after this, tempers cool down, he will back away from this. But his rhetoric today was very, very hot. He threatened economic and financial blockade that would leave the Kurdish population starving, essentially. And so people are paying a lot of attention to what he's saying.
Erika, where do you think the KRG and the broader region are headed? Five, 10 years down the line, do you expect to see an independent Kurdistan, for example?
I think that what KRG officials did succeed in doing is actually putting that on the table. It's still hard for us to know how strongly Baghdad and Turkey and Iran will truly act later on down the line. But what Barzani did is he got people actually talking about independence, which wasn't really something that was talked about before, other than in sort of a vague gesture in diplomatic conversations. And now, you have people really discussing this issue. So in that sense, he has brought the conversation forward.
But when you speak to KRG officials today, there's a weird referendum hangover where they're saying stuff like, well, you know, we never said this was going to happen right away, this could be still 10 years down the line. So I do not expect us to see a Kurdish state imminently, or maybe even in the next five years. But I think within 10 years, it's a very, very real possibility.
Much changing in an always volatile region. Erika Solomon, [? Mehul ?] [INAUDIBLE], thank you very much indeed.