Turkey plans to send its "toughest and final warning" to Iraq's Kurdish provinces planning a referendum on independence on Monday, a senior adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
Erdogan is scheduled to oversee a National Security Council meeting on Friday, before convening the Cabinet at 6 p.m. in Ankara to finalize measures Turkey will take if the Iraqi Kurds do vote for separation. Massoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, has so far ignored warnings from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and the U.S. against holding the referendum.
The government in Ankara fears a vote for Kurdish independence in Iraq's oil-rich north could set back its own campaign to stamp out a Kurdish insurgency it's been battling for three decades, and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Friday called the vote a "national security issue" for Turkey. That's overriding the strong ties between the two administrations, based on energy links and a mutual suspicion of the Iraqi government.
"Turkey will sound the final and toughest warning to Barzani on Friday," Ilnur Cevik, a chief adviser to Erdogan, wrote in an editorial in the English-language Daily Sabah. "Turkey feels Barzani is getting himself into deep trouble which he cannot handle."
The Turkish army has been conducting tank drills near the border with Iraq's Kurdish region since Sept. 18, underscoring Turkey's threat to do whatever it deems necessary against the push for independence. The prime minister's office submitted a draft motion on cross-border military operations to parliament on Friday, according to a copy seen by Bloomberg.
The tension has weighed on financial markets, with Turkey's benchmark Borsa Istanbul 100 Index down 3.1 percent this week and headed for its biggest weekly drop in almost 11 months.
A key concern for Turkey, according to Cevik, is that the vote would prompt a military response from Baghdad, which could in turn trigger an exodus of Iraqi Kurds toward Turkey.
Turkey is also concerned about the fate of the Turkmens in Kirkuk, and fears that the Kurdish militant group PKK -- which has been waging a war for autonomy in southeast Turkey from its bases in northern Iraq -- could exploit the situation to advance its own interests, he said. "This cannot be accepted or tolerated by Turkey," Cevik said.
Moqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric and political leader, said the Kurds were not aware of the the threat they would face if they push for the referendum, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported on Sept. 21. The Kurds should negotiate rather than seek separation, he said.
Ahead of the referendum, crowds have been filling the streets of Erbil, the region's capital, dancing and waving Kurdish flags. The 900,000 people registered to vote will be asked one question: "Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration to become an independent state?" More than 98 percent of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in a 2005 referendum that did not result in statehood.
But there's no mechanism for secession, and senior Kurdish officials have said they will take their time arranging a divorce. Rather than pursue a split, some analysts have said that the regional government wants to use the result to force the Iraqi government to resolve long-standing arguments over territory and revenue from oil sales. The future of Kirkuk, which along with nearby oil fields produces about half a million barrels of crude daily, is a key element. The national government says it owns Kirkuk and won't negotiate it away.
Israel and Russia, the top funder of Kurdish oil and gas deals, are the only major players in the Middle East that haven't called for the plebiscite to be canceled -- and only Israel has actively encouraged the Kurds.