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Both Arbil and Barcelona recently held independence referendums. Both overwhelmingly supported independence and both seem to be very serious about moving forward with their decision.
Both are angry. The Spanish government handled Barcelona very badly, and Catalans saw the ghost of Franco once again, apparently increasing their determination to declare independence.
In the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) capital Arbil, meanwhile, post referendum threats from neighboring countries, including Turkey, also only aggravated the situation. But the situation is far more serious in Mesopotamia than it is in the Iberian Peninsula. Let me explain.
I remember once a conversation I had with a prominent Palestinian. I told him that I thought Palestine could one day become the first properly industrialized Arab country, thanks ironically to the Israeli infrastructure that already existed nearby. He listened to me with patience. “It all makes sense,” he said, “your arguments are very rational. You Turks have changed so much since the Ottoman times, but we have not. In this land, dignity comes before making a decent living. That has to be what we talk about when we speak to our people.” This was 10 years ago, just as Turkey was re-joining the Middle East.
With the recent independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, our region changed irreversibly. Last week, I wrote about the Dohuk document, which delineated the demands of Kurdish nationalism over the past 110 years. It was a Barzani, Abdussalaam Barzani, who codified those earlier Kurdish demands. Now another Barzani, Masoud Barzani, has taken those demands one step further, toward independence. We now have a completely new situation, which must be handled with utmost care if we want to avoid further destabilization in Iraq and Syria.
But Turkey is acting as if we have no knowledge of the Middle Eastern way of doing things. All this talk about closing airport connectivity, closing borders to trade, and shutting down natural gas flows, is creating its own negative nationalist reaction. “Kurdistan may be able to live without airports and without a budget, but when 93 percent want independence nobody should expect us to live without dignity.” This is what I am now hearing from Arbil. Any attempt to make Barzani kneel down is only going to strengthen his position.
Taking severe measures is also not good for neighboring countries. But their pride was also hurt by the referendum. Clearly the people in this region are more similar than we like to admit.
Take Turkey, for example. I remember a 2013 survey conducted by the TEPAV think tank regarding transnational kinship. When asked whether they have kin living in Iraq, Iran or Syria, around 8 percent of 7,000 Turkish citizen respondents said “yes.” This ratio was around 4 percent if the respondents defined themselves as Turks but increased to 23 percent among Kurdish Turks (with around 18 percent of respondents saying they consider themselves to be Kurdish). So over 8 percent of Turkish citizens have kin living in a current conflict zone, all on different sides of the same conflict. This is obviously hard to manage, and there is definitely a need for more finesse.
Transnational kinship is just one important issue. There is also the importance of exports to Iraq from some major Turkish cities. Iraq is the number three export destination for Turkish goods, amounting to $7.6 billion a year. As a consequence of the situation in Iraq,
Turkish trucks transfer Turkish export products to Kurdish traders in Dohuk. From this logistical point, goods are then spread to the south. If Ankara opts to declare serious economic sanctions, the southeastern Turkish provinces of Gaziantep, Kayseri, Konya, Kahramanmaraş, Mardin, Diyarbakır will be hit the hardest.
It is time to focus more on carrots and then sticks. Ankara needs to make fewer impotent threats and instead quietly pursue more realistic strategies. It was good to see Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Arbil the other day, to attend the funeral of late Jalal “Mam” Talabani. Iranian diplomacy has a feel for these things – it knows when to show its teeth and when to bow in prayer.
Ankara also needs to calm down, remembering the steps to this very Middle Eastern dance.