Erdogan’s Self-Defeating Opposition to the KRG Referendum

By Michael M. Gunter
Submitted to Session P5069 (The Consequences of the Failed Iraqi Kurdistan Referendum, 2018 Annual Meeting
Intl Rltns/Aff
Middle East/Near East Studies;
One does not need to be a confirmed Turkophobe or Kurdophile to see something has gone badly amiss with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s over-all Kurdish policies and specifically with his self-defeating, negative reaction to the advisory referendum on independence held by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) on 25 September 2017. This rings all the more true given Erdogan’s earlier actions towards ameliorating the Kurdish problem to the mutual benefit of both Turkey and the Kurds. Why this unfortunate contretemps? As a fallout from the negative interpretation Turkey, Iran, and Iraq gave the KRG referendum, Iraqi forces with strong Iranian support and Turkish and U.S. compliance, quickly occupied Kirkuk and other disputed territories, closed the KRG’s two international airports in Irbil and Sulaymaniya, and took over the KRG’s border crossings, among others. Massoud Barzani resigned as KRG president, and the Kurdish region was thrown from the heights of ambition to the depths of failure. This paper will analyze the background to Erdogan’s actions regarding the KRG and why he then turned against his supposed de facto ally, the KRG. This paper will be based mainly on field work and interviews in Turkey and northern Iraq, as well as media coverage and various scholarly works. The tentative conclusion is that while seemingly propping up his position in the short run, Erdogan has slid back into a failed past of opposing legitimate Kurdish goals, instead of his earlier promising position of leading and thus guiding them in ways that would be successful for Turkey.