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Erdogan warns of ethnic war risk – Damascus open to Kurd autonomy

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Iraqi Kurds wave the Kurdish flag as they celebrate in the streets of the northern city of Erbil on Sept 25, following a referendum on independence. Iraq’s Kurds defied widespread opposition to vote in a historic independence referendum, sparking fresh tensions with Baghdad, threats from Turkey and fears of unrest. (AFP)

ANKARA, Sept 26, (AFP): Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday warned the Iraqi Kurdish leader against pushing for independence after holding a non-binding referendum, saying such a move risked sparking an “ethnic war” in the region. “If (Massud) Barzani and the Kurdish Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war,” Erdogan said in a televised speech. Iraq’s Kurds on Monday voted in a historic independence referendum despite fierce opposition from Baghdad and neighbouring countries Iran and Turkey.

Turnout was 72 percent, with 3.3 million of the 4.58 million registered voters taking part, election commission spokesman Shirwan Zirar said late Monday. Results were expected within 24 hours, with an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote not in doubt. Erdogan described the vote as a “treason to our country” since it had come at a time of good relations between Ankara and its neighbour the KRG. He urged Barzani to “give up on an adventure which can only have a dark end.”

Erdogan reaffirmed that Turkey — which fears the effects of the vote on its own sizeable Kurdish population — would consider all options from economic sanctions to military measures. “Airspace and ground (options) are all on the table,” he said, in apparent reference to his past threats to close the border. “All options are on the table right now and being discussed,” he said. “You (the KRG) will be stuck from the moment we start implementing the sanctions.”

The Turkish president said no other country would recognise Iraqi Kurds’ independence other than Israel, which had warmly supported the referendum. “Who will recognise your independence? Israel. The world is not about Israel,” he said. But Erdogan warned Barzani that the support of the Jewish state would not be enough. “You should know that the waving of Israeli flags there will not save you.” Elsewhere, the Syrian government is ready to discuss autonomy for the country’s Kurds, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has said, the first time Damascus has openly accepted such a possibility. Muallem renewed his opposition however to an independence referendum held by Kurds in neighbouring Iraq on Monday.

State news agency SANA quoted Muallem telling Russia Today on Monday night that Syria’s Kurds “want a form of autonomy within the framework of the borders of the state.” “This is negotiable and can be the subject of dialogue,” he said. “As soon as we have defeated DAESH, we can sit down with our Syrian brothers and agree on a formula for the future,” he added, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. Syria’s Kurds are a leading force against IS, and are supported in their campaign by the US-led coalition fighting the jihadists. The Syrian government is fighting its own separate Russian-backed campaign against IS. Muallem repeated his opposition to an independence vote held by Iraq’s Kurds on Monday, calling it a “separatist referendum” and “totally unacceptable in our eyes.” “We support the unity of Iraq,” he said.

Muallem had already criticised the vote. Syria’s Kurds, who made up 15 percent of the country’s pre-war population, largely stayed out of the uprising that started the conflict in March 2011. Instead they focused on building local government and security forces in Kurdish-majority areas in the north and northeast. On Friday, they held the first of a series of local elections they plan to hold in areas under their control. The election was dismissed by Syria’s deputy foreign minister as a “joke.” Meanwhile, Iraq’s Kurds were Tuesday expecting the announcement of a big “yes” vote for independence, as authorities in Baghdad weighed how to respond to a referendum they considered illegal. Large numbers turned out in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region for Monday’s vote, which went ahead despite fierce objections from Baghdad, Turkey and Iran. Votes were still being counted on Tuesday, with results expected by the end of the day and no doubt of an overwhelming outcome in favour of independence. The vote is non-binding and will not lead automatically to independence, but is seen by the Kurds as a major step towards a long-cherished dream of statehood. In the regional capital Erbil, a night of fireworks, flag-waving and dancing in the streets followed the vote. “We made a Kurdish state today,” Erbil resident Ahmad told AFP during the celebrations. “We’re Kurdish people, we’re not Arab, we’re not Persian, we’re no one else … We’re Kurds and we’ll remain Kurds forever.” The referendum took place peacefully, but has increased tensions between the Iraqi Kurds and their neighbours, raising fears of potential unrest. Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared before the vote that he would take “necessary measures” to protect the country’s unity and he was due to meet parliament members on Wednesday. Iraqi lawmakers voted on Tuesday to send troops to disputed areas where the referendum took place, but there have been no signs of a deployment so far.

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