Ankara’s Muted Response to the Kurdistan Region’s Independence Referendum and the International and Regional Context

Kurdistan24 Washington D.C correspondent Dr. Laurie Mylroie contributes with an article focusing on the September 2017 Kurdish independence referendum.

As the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) proceeded to hold the September 25 independence referendum, many analysts anticipated a strong response from Ankara. However, despite harsh and bellicose rhetoric, Turkey’s response has been relatively muted. Two weeks after the referendum, Ankara has yet to take significant punitive measures against Erbil.

There were a number of analysts who predicted this outcome, including Ceng Sagnic who explained in the September 2017 issue of Turkeyscope why an armed clash between Ankara and Erbil was unlikely.[1] Yet there were others who did not anticipate such a result. Among those who didn’t was the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, Brett McGurk. McGurk has assumed a key role in formulating U.S. diplomacy toward the Kurds, despite his limited personal experience with the region.  Moreover, the future of the Kurdistan Region, as well as that of Iraq, seems to be well outside of his original mandate. Indeed, on the eve of the referendum, McGurk took the virtually unprecedented step of threatening one ally, the Kurdistan Region, with hostile action by another, specifically Turkey.[2] Nonetheless, Ankara’s response was—and remains— restrained.

However, Baghdad’s reaction, and that of its’ ally, Tehran, may prove different. The U.S. took an unusually harsh stance toward the referendum, and senior figures from the George W. Bush administration, including former United States Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, have warned that the U.S. might, inadvertently, be encouraging regional parties to take military action against the Kurdistan Region.

Turkey’s Position before the Referendum
Initially, Ankara’s response to the KRG’s expressed determination to proceed with the independence referendum was rather low-key.

In early June, the KRG announced the date of the referendum. In late August, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Erbil to meet with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. Çavuşoğlu said the referendum “was not a good idea,” but he also stated that Turkey would not undertake one of the more dramatic options it could use to oppose the vote, such as imposing a blockade of the Kurdistan Region.

“This [referendum] is nothing to do with our trade with this Region,” Çavuşoğlu said.[3]

In contrast, the U.S., specifically McGurk, grew ever-shriller in criticizing the referendum as September 25 approached. That criticism culminated in a visit to Baghdad and Dohuk, whence McGurk and his entourage traveled on September 14 to meet Barzani—who then proceeded to reject McGurk’s “alternate plan” to the referendum.

That outcome was not hard to predict. The referendum was to occur in 11 days and campaigning was well underway, with rallies drawing crowds of tens of thousands throughout the Kurdistan Region. It is indeed unlikely that any political leader could back down from such a position.

McGurk exuded an imperial condescension, as if he were some European colonial administrator of the 19th century—a criticism of Paul Bremer, head of the first US administration in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and with whom McGurk’s experience of the country began, when he was Bremer’s legal counsel. Following Barzani’s rebuff, McGurk gave a press conference in Erbil, in which he publicly asserted, “This referendum is ill timed and ill advised. It is not something that we can support.”[4]

Dr. Arzu Yılmaz, head of the International Relations Department of the American University of Kurdistan, strongly criticized McGurk, explaining that the significant and unyielding, opposition publically displayed by United States officials “encouraged” Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara “to harden their rhetoric” against the referendum.[5]

Ambassador Crocker similarly criticized the U.S. stance, saying that the United States was mistaken when it chose “to come down that hard against the referendum at a time when it clearly was going to take place.”[6] John Hannah, former National Security Adviser to Vice-President Dick Cheney, expanded on that critique, noting the vehemence of the U.S. opposition to the plebiscite as he recalled:

the bile that U.S. diplomats spewed at Barzani in private conversations with me in the weeks leading up to the referendum. I was taken aback by the intense frustration and anger directed at a critical wartime ally and longtime, loyal U.S. partner whose history of oppression and even genocide at the hands of other nations leaves it with — if nothing else — an almost unimpeachable moral case for self-determination.[7]

In further display of a misplaced imperial mentality, McGurk assured senior U.S. officials, as well as Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran, that he could get the Kurdish leadership to postpone the referendum, as Michael Pregent, an Iraq scholar at the Hudson Institute, has explained.[8]

Turkey’s Position after the Referendum
Voter turn-out was high during the referendum, and the results were overwhelming—92.7 percent in favor of independence. Significantly, it was not marred by any major acts of violence, even in the ethnically mixed areas of Kirkuk province, as Crocker noted.[9]

One would expect Turkey to have a good understanding of political currents and popular sentiment on its southern border. Nonetheless, and despite its own close ties with the KRG, Ankara evidently believed McGurk’s assurances that the referendum would be postponed. Following the vote, Erdoğan asserted that he had expected “until the last moment” that Barzani, whom he accused of “treachery,” would postpone it.[10]

Erdoğan condemned the KRG in the harshest terms, calling the referendum a "threat to national security” and warning that Turkey would close the border.

"It will be over when we close the oil taps, all [their] revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq,” the Turkish President threatened.[11] The following week, Erdoğan visited Iran. The Turkish Chief of Staff had just been there, fueling speculation that Tehran and Ankara might join in military measures against the Kurdistan Region.

But Turkey has not yet attempted to punish the Kurdistan Region. Indeed, Ankara’s actions against Erbil have been relatively minor so far, and the passage of time only adds to the impression that Turkey plans no major moves.

What Explains Ankara’s Restraint?
Apart from the referendum, relations between Ankara and Erbil are not antagonistic. In the years following the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurdistan Region emerged as an independently functioning political entity, and in those 26 years, Turkey and the Kurdistan Region have worked out a modus vivendi.

The two parties get along for many reasons. These include Turkish trade with the Kurdistan Region,  its economic investments there, which have benefitted both parties,  its reliance on Kurdish oil,  a mutual wariness of Shiʿi Iran,  and a common opposition to the PKK, to cite some of the most important factors.[12]

These considerations have prompted some knowledgeable observers to suggest that the harsh language that Ankara directed against the KRG was mere rhetoric all along that was meant primarily for Turkish domestic consumption.[13]

It is also possible that as the threats to the Kurdistan Region grew more heated in the days after the referendum, US officials began privately to urge restraint in a meaningful fashion.

There is also the Russian factor. Unlike Washington, Moscow has refrained from criticizing the independence referendum. Following the vote, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly cautioned Turkey against carrying out its threats to shut off Kurdish oil exports, while describing the referendum as an internal Iraqi affair.

“Our statements are somewhat careful and cautious since we don’t want to aggravate or blow up the situation,” Putin said, as he explained Russia’s position, and did so in a way that could also be understood as an indirect criticism of the US stance.[14]

While Ankara will most likely refrain from taking serious action against the Kurdistan Region, Tehran and Baghdad are another story. On October 11, the Kurdistan Region Security Council warned that elements of the Hashd al-Shaabi, which include Iranian-directed units, were mobilizing for “a major attack” on the Kirkuk region, in conjunction with some Iraqi forces.[15] At the same time, former US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, warned that the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassim Sulaimani, was now in Iraq, and “active US engagement” was “needed to prevent conflict.”[16]


Dr. Laurie Mylroie received her Ph.D. from Harvard University and was an Assistant Professor there, and an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College, before taking up policy analysis in Washington DC.  Currently, she is a Washington DC correspondent for Kurdistan24, where she covers the Pentagon and State Department.

[1] Ceng Sagnic, “Turkey-KRG Relations Revisited: Potential for Crises,” TurkeyScope, September 2017.

[2]Briefing With Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk,” September 22, 2017

[3]Turkey won't close border after Kurdistan referendum: FM,” Rudaw, August 23, 2017

[4] Press Conference by Special Presidential Envoy McGurk in Erbil, Iraq, September 14, 2017

[5]US diplomatic misstep turned Kurdistan referendum into crisis: Analyst,” Kurdistan24, October 10, 2017.

[6] Amb. Ryan Crocker, on Connect the World, CNN, September 28, 2017.

[7] John Hannah, “The United States Must Prevent Disaster in Kurdistan,” Foreign Policy, October 2, 2017. Journalists for Kurdish media—Kurdistan24, Kurdistan TV, and Rudaw —had a similar experience following McGurk’s August 14 briefing to the State Department press corps. Our questions were so harshly answered that the three of us asked ourselves afterwards, “Just what is going on?”

[8] “Policy toward independence referendum needs to change, US strategists say,” Kurdistan24, September 26, 2017.

[9] Crocker, op.cit.

[10]Iraqi Kurds must give up on independence or go hungry - Erdoğan,” BBC, September 26, 2017.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See Sagnic, op. cit., for a more detailed explanation of the nature of Turkish-KRG relations.

[13] Eric Brown, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, made this argument in a Hudson Institute panel discussion, “Iraq After the Kurdistan Referendum: What Next?, October 5, 2017. See also Sagnic, op. cit., and BBC, op. cit.

[14] “Putin urges caution on threats to Kurdish oil exports,” Financial Times, October 4, 2017.

[15] Tweet from Kurdistan Region Security Council, October 11, 2017.

[16] Tweet from Zalmay Khalilzad, October 11, 2017.