- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Turkey is reportedly weighing whether to take diplomatic action against Iraqi Kurdistan ahead of a critical independence vote in the semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq, days after reinforcing military positions along Turkey’s 200-mile border with the country.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his senior advisers plan to discuss what kind of diplomatic options, including sanctions, Ankara could levy against the Kurdistan Regional Government or KRG, he told reporters in New York Wednesday. Ankara will “put forward their own stance on what kind of sanctions we can impose,” Turkish news outlet Anadolu reported.

While Mr. Erdogan did not disclose specifics on what actions could be taken against Irbil in the coming weeks, he ominously stated any efforts to curb the Kurdish referendum vote, slated for Sept. 22, “will not be ordinary.” His comments came hours after Turkish military leaders released images of their forces conducting large-scale military drills along one of the major commercial border crossings between Turkey and northern Iraq.

Beginning Monday, hundreds of Turkish troops, tanks and heavy artillery have been traversing along the Silopi/Habur region along the Turkish-Iraqi border. The military drills, which began exactly one week before the scheduled referendum vote, have primarily focused on Ankara’s mechanized armor units, operating less than two miles from Kurdish territory.

The U.S., Iran and Iraq have joined Turkey in their opposition to the Kurdish referendum vote, which analysts say could pave the way for an new, independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Washington has been opposed to the vote, saying the move could destabilize the fragile U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The vote will be “particularly provocative and destabilizing” in the so-called contested areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, including the ethnically diverse areas of Sinjar and Kobane — which straddles the Iraqi-Turkish border — and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk said in a statement last Friday.

Kurdish peshmerga are poised to take part in the coalition’s offensive to liberate Hawija, located 40 miles from Kirkuk, from Islamic State control. It will be the first major peshmerga action against the terror group known as ISIS or ISIS since aiding Iraqi forces in pushing out the group from its Iraqi capitol of Mosul earlier this year.

The peshmerga’s contribution to the ISIS fight, coupled with Iraqi Kurdistan’s long-standing alliance with the U.S. has put Irbil in a politically perfect position to push for independence.

But critics continue to claim the move is a thinly veiled power grab by KRG President Masoud Barzani, who they argue is attempting to expand Kurdistan’s territorial borders outlined in the Iraqi constitution. The move would also solidify Mr. Barzani’s status as KRG’s leader, quashing any effort to usurp control by Iranian-backed Kurdish factions led by Jalal Talabani, and stem growing Iranian influence in northern Iraq.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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