Turkey, Iran, and Iraq adopted a coordinated, aggressive force posture in retaliation for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) independence referendum on September 25, 2017. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) conducted military exercises on the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan with the Turkish Armed Forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Iranian Artesh. Turkey and Iran implemented a ban on direct flights from Northern Iraq on September 29. The ISF has also begun to establish security checkpoints at border crossings from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey and Iran. The tripartite has yet to enact economic embargos, although the three states threatened to block crude oil exports from the KRG following a temporary ban by Iran. Turkey, Iran, and Iraq nonetheless remain unlikely to escalate militarily in the near term. The U.S. has opposed the KRG’s unilateral campaign on the grounds that it will harm the prospects for a unified, independent, and representative Iraq. The tripartite response and Iran’s growing role also threaten that goal.
The tripartite cooperation between Turkey, Iran, and Iraq builds upon preexisting multilateral frameworks that ultimately expand Iran’s regional influence and undercut American influence. Russia, Iran, and Syria have begun coopting elements of the Iraqi government into a ‘Quartet’ for operations along the Syrian-Iraqi Border. Russia and Iran have also drawn Turkey into a diplomatic process that favors their own interests through the Astana Talks on the Syrian Civil War. Iran will exploit these overlapping forums to expand and legitimize its destabilizing involvement in Iraq, Syria, and the wider Middle East. Russia also sees opportunity in these forums.It has set conditions to engage more deeply in Iraq amidst the uncertainty surrounding the KRG’s drive for independence. These forums will undermine the prospects for establishing independent, representative, and unitary states in Iraq and Syria – a requirement for achieving broader U.S. objectives.
Between 25 and 35 million Kurds inhabit a mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never obtained a permanent nation state.
There is deep-seated hostility between the Turkish state and the country’s Kurds, who constitute 15% to 20% of the population.
Kurds received harsh treatment at the hands of the Turkish authorities for generations. In response to uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s, many Kurds were resettled, Kurdish names and costumes were banned, the use of the Kurdish language was restricted and even the existence of a Kurdish ethnic identity was denied, with people designated “Mountain Turks”.
In 1978, Abdullah Ocalan established the PKK, which called for an independent state within Turkey. Six years later, the group began an armed struggle. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Kurds make up between 7% and 10% of Syria’s population. Syria’s Kurds have long been suppressed and denied basic rights.
Kurds make up an estimated 15% to 20% of Iraq’s population. They have historically enjoyed more national rights than Kurds living in neighbouring states, but also faced brutal repression.
After a century of yearning, the Kurds of Iraq have managed, at last, to pull off a vote for independence, but not without antagonizing nearly everyone in perhaps the world’s most volatile region.
The question now is whether an arid, landlocked proto-state dependent on hostile neighbors can overcome is own shortcomings — and Iraq’s disruptive retaliation — to build a viable path to independence.
With its troubled economy and dearth of democratic institutions, its prospects were already tenuous. Its best hopes lay in its oil reserves and American support, but Turkey has threatened to cut off its oil pipeline, and the relationship with the United States soured after the Kurds rebuffed its entreaties to cancel the vote.
Rather than negotiate and then seek international recognition, as the United States and others had asked, the Kurds forged ahead with the referendum.
Now, after a 93 percent “yes” vote on Monday, the Kurds are beseeching Baghdad to negotiate. Baghdad is not only refusing, but has demanded that the vote results be annulled and has moved to isolate the region, known as Kurdistan.