Pressure is being placed on the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as Baghdad imposes an international flight embargo, Ankara threatens restrictions on oil trading, and Iraq, Iran, and Turkey hold border military drills following Monday’s Kurdish independence referendum.
Electoral officials on Wednesday told a news conference in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, that 92.73 percent of Iraqi Kurds who casted ballots voted “Yes” to secession. This has alarmed the central government in Baghdad, Turkey, and other regional and international powers who worry the referendum could lead to renewed conflict in the region.
Masoud Barzani, president of the KRG, has said that the vote will not lead to an immediate declaration of independence, but rather should instead open negotiations talks. But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who rejects the referendum as illegal and unconstitutional told legislators on Wednesday that there was no question of using its results for talks.
Backed by both Ankara and Tehran, the Iraqi government has demanded that the KRG cancel the results of the referendum or possibly face sanctions, international isolation, and perhaps even a military intervention. They also demanded that the KRG immediately relinquish control over its border crossings with Turkey, Iran, and Syria, as well as over its international airports in Erbil and Sulaimaniya, which the KRG has refused to do.
Consequently, Iraq’s central government decided to impose a ban on international flights to Kurdistan which when into effect this Friday. Maintaining this international flight embargo is likely to discourage visits by business professionals and Kurdish expatriates, as well as negatively affect many industries including travel, hotels, financial services, transport and real estate. Similarly, Iran has also halted direct flights to and from Kurdistan.
Furthermore, Turkey has also threatened potentially crippling restrictions on oil trading with Iraqi Kurds. The KRG relies on sales of crude oil for almost all its hard currency revenues, and much of the oil supplied by Kurdish sources flows through a pipeline from Iraq to Turkey. By stopping this flow of oil, Turkey can potentially cripple, or at least negatively affect, the Kurdish economy.
In addition, the Iraqi defence ministry has said that it plans to take control of the borders of its autonomous Kurdish region “in coordination” with Iran and Turkey. As such, “A joint military exercise between Iran’s armed forces and units from the Iraqi army will be held in the coming days along the shared border,” reported Masoud Jazayeri, an Iranian army spokesman, on Saturday. An Iraqi force was also deployed on the Turkish side of the border as part of coordinated drills with the Turkish army earlier this Tuesday. Both Iran and Turkey have significant Kurdish populations and fear that the referendum will only inflame separatist movements at home.
The United Nations offered to help solve the problem between the KRG and Baghdad on Thursday, the Iraqi foreign ministry said following a meeting between Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari and Jan Kubis, the top UN envoy in Iraq. However, it is not clear whether this help will be accepted.
It is clear though that all the methods being taken against the KRG are mere attempts to force Kurds to delegitimize the referendum results. As the pressure placed on the Kurdish semi-autonomous region by Iraq, Iran, and Turkey increases, so will the tension between the two sides. Seeing as how there has not been much communication between Iraq and the KRG, this will most likely lead to a bigger conflict in the middle east, which is evidently the last thing needed in the region. There is no doubt that the Kurds will face many difficulties in their path to desired independence.
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