Turkey, Iraq Threaten "Military Intervention" As Iraqi Kurds Hold Independence Referendum

One day after a "Nightmare Victory" for Angela Merkel in the German elections, which has unleashed a nationalist "earthquake" in the Bundestag, on Monday in another closely watched election, polls opened in Iraq’s Kurdish-run provinces and disputed territories as Iraqi Kurds cast ballots in support for independence from Baghdad in a historic but non-binding and furiously challenged vote.

Millions are expected to vote on Monday across the three provinces that make up the Kurdish autonomous region, as well as residents in disputed territories — areas claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

The vote is being carried out despite mounting regional opposition to the move, including virtually every neighboring nation, except the odd stance by Israel whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stunned the region when he commented specifically of the referendum on Sept 13 saying, "Israel supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state." 

In an attempt to appease the vocal opposition, the prime minister of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region said the referendum doesn’t mean “redrawing borders” and will not result in immediate independence. Nechirvan Barzani says that even if the result of the vote is a “yes,” the region will resolve its disputes with Baghdad peacefully. He spoke at a press conference on Monday morning in Irabil, the Kurdish regional capital. Voting is taking place across the region and in disputed territories claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Last week, the United States joined the broader chorus, warning that the vote will likely destabilize the region amid the fight with the Islamic State group. As reported yesterday, Baghdad also came out strongly against the referendum, demanding on Sunday that all airports and borders crossings in the Kurdish region be handed back to federal government control.

On Monday, the diplomatic and economic noose around Iraqi Kurdistan tightened further when Turkey said it doesn’t recognize the Iraqi Kurdish region’s referendum on support for independence from Baghdad and insists its results will be “null and void.”

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry released a statement as polls opened in Iraq’s Kurdish-run provinces and disputed territories on Monday, with Ankara calling on the international community, and especially regional countries, not to recognize the vote either. It also urged Iraq Kurdish leaders to abandon “utopic goals,” accusing them of endangering peace and stability for Iraq and the whole region. The ministry reiterated that Turkey would take all measures to thwart threats to its national security. On Saturday, Turkey’s parliament met in an extraordinary session to extend a mandate allowing Turkey’s military to send troops over its southern border if developments in Iraq and Syria are perceived as national security threats.

As noted earlier, the price of Brent (and WTI) jumped this morning after Turkish President Erdogan warned that Turkey could cut off the pipeline that carries oil from northern Iraq to the outside world, further intensifying the pressure on the Kurdish autonomous region over its independence referendum. Erdogan spoke shortly after Prime Minister Binali Yildirum said Ankara could take punitive measures involving borders and air space against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over the referendum and would not recognize the outcome. Yildirim also said on Monday that officers and experts from Iraq’s army would join military exercises that Turkey launched along the border in an apparent warning to the Iraqi Kurds.

Iraq, of course, was just as livid, with Baghdad residents strongly criticizing the Iraqi Kurds’ independence referendum, saying it would raise sectarian tensions and create an “Israel in Iraq”... which may explain why Bibi is for it. An Arabic newspaper headline on Monday said “Kurdistan into the unknown,” a reference to the name Kurds use for their region. According to AP, journalist Raad Mohammad said the vote represents a “division of Iraq,” and added that it was “unacceptable for the Iraqi people as well as many other countries.”

Another Baghdad resident, Ali al-Rubayah, described the referendum as a “black day in the history of the Kurds,” adding that “today, the Kurds are trying to make an Israeli state in the north of Iraq.” Lawyer Tariq al-Zubaydi said the referendum was inappropriate amid the “ongoing threat of terrorism and Islamic State” and that a “unified country is better for all.”

As AP adds, an Iraqi lawmaker said the country’s parliament has approved several tough measures in response to the vote.  Shiite lawmaker Hakim al-Zamili says the measures will force Baghdad to act to “protect Iraq’s unity and to deploy troops in all areas” where they were before the 2014 blitz by the Islamic State group. Al-Zamili says measures approved on Monday also call for closing all border crossings with the Kurdish region and banning oil trade. He says the parliament considers the Kurdish referendum unconstitutional and calls for taking legal measures against all Kurdish officials and employees who took part in the vote. Bloomberg has a full breakdown of the measures adopted by Iraq today:

  • Iraq parliament voted to close border crossings with Kurdistan, return oil fields in north of Kirkuk, other disputed areas to the control and supervision of the federal govt, the legislature said on its website.
  • Also voted to prevent companies from carrying out exploration work in joint and disputed areas subject to lawsuits
  • Oil exports should only be done via federal govt
  • Army chief must take all legal, constitutional measures to protect Iraq’s unity
  • Deploy troops in areas that had been under Iraq’s control before 2014 and in Kirkuk

A "troica" against the referendum was formed when Iran joined Iraq and Turkey in describing the Iraqi Kurdish referendum as “untimely and wrong” and reiterated its support for Iraq’s territorial integrity. Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi told reporters on Monday that the vote could “lead to developments and happenings that could affect all people of the region and especially Kurdish people.” Ghasemi reiterated that Iran supports the “territorial integrity and democratic process” in Iraq.

As reported yesterday, Iran's Supreme National Security Council closed off the country's airspace to the Iraqi Kurdish area at the request of the central government in Baghdad. More from AP:

Since Sunday, Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard has been having a military exercise in its northwestern Kurdish region bordering Iraq in a sign of Tehran’s concerns over the Iraqi Kurdish vote.  Iran and Iraq have been close allies since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. Both are opposed to Kurdish independence.


In June, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, that Iraq “should remain integrated” and that advocates of Kurdish independence are “opponents of the independence and identity” of Iraq.

Even Syria jumped on the bandwagon, when its foreign minister said the country doesn’t recognize the Iraqi Kurdish referendum saying Damascus rejects any measure that could break up neighboring Iraq. The Syrian state news agency SANA says Walid al-Moallem spoke on Sunday in New York. Syria’s has a large Kurdish minority that last week had its own vote as part of a move toward a federal system within Syria.

As AP explains, "Syria, like Turkey and Iran, opposes the vote in Iraq, fearing that Kurdish communities within Syria might eventually do the same." Al-Moallem described the Iraqi Kurdish vote as a “step that we do not recognize” and stressed that the government in Damascus only recognizes a “sole, united Iraq. He says: “We reject any measure the leads to dividing Iraq.”

Finally, closing the loop on today's independence referendum, Turkish President Erdogan said he had spoken to Russia's president Vladimir Putin over the phone about the Kurdish vote and while he did not elaborate whether Russia, too, is against the vote, said that that Putin would visit Ankara on Thursday to discuss developments in the region, including the Kurdish referendum.

So with virtually everyone, not only its neighbors but also the US and potentially Russia, breathing down the neck of millions of Iraqi Kurds with warnings that the vote will not stand, and only Israel on the side of secession, we look forward to how Barzani will respond to the vote which is expected to pass overwhelmingly in favor of independence, and whether this will serve as the next military geopolitical strike point in the middle east.