For Turkey, the referendum poses the risk of galvanizing Kurdish nationalism, which the nation has historically suppressed within its borders through decades of armed conflict, and by outlawing Kurdish-language education and television programming. Ankara made its opposition to Kurdish aspirations clear when the Iraqi Kurdish federation was established during the first Gulf War in 1991 with U.S. support. Over time, that initial discord between Turkey and the KRG evolved into economic links and cooperation. Though Kurdish-Turkish relations have improved, the persecution of Kurds within Turkey continues to this day.
This is the result of different circumstances north and south of the Turkish border. Over the last decade, Turkey and the KRG have fostered mutually beneficial ties, most notably with the construction of a pipeline allowing the landlocked Kurdish region to export oil across Turkish soil. Their negotiations over such endeavors regularly bypassed Baghdad, riling Iraqi officials. Yet with Monday’s vote, that partnership is at risk of crumbling under the prospects that Kurdish forces in Iraq and northern Syria could unite, posing a security threat to Turkey, as Can Acun, a researcher at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, a pro-government think tank based in Ankara, told me. “In the long-term, this could be the starting point for a larger, united Kurdistan,” Acun said. “That is why Turkey could sacrifice its economic gains to prevent the establishment of a greater Kurdistan.”
Turkey’s hostility towards Kurdish autonomy dates back to 1923, when the young nation, still reeling from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, fended off foreign occupying forces to reclaim much of what constitutes modern-day Turkey. As regional borders were redrawn, Turkish leaders tried to forge unity among their Greek, Jewish, Armenian, Alevi and Kurdish citizens by encouraging them to embrace their new Turkish identities. Vestiges of these nation-building efforts can be spotted to this day in Turkey, where mountains and school courtyards are still adorned with the words of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the republic’s first president: “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene” or “How happy is one who says, I’m a Turk.” The phrase has been etched into the national psyche, setting clear limits for minority groups, and discouraging expressions of divergent identities. From the beginning, to be a Turk has meant the shedding or negating of other allegiances. For this reason, the concept of Kurdish autonomy anywhere in the region poses a very literal existential threat to the Turkish Republic.
Kurds remain the Middle East’s largest stateless minority group. Their population of 25 to 35 million people is divided between Iran, Syria, and Iraq, with the majority residing in Turkey, where they constitute about 20 percent of the population. This sizable minority has tried to secede several times, but since the 1980s, efforts toward greater Kurdish independence in Turkey have been largely subsumed by a militant insurgency led by Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, whose guerrilla war has led to more than 40,000 deaths over the last three decades.