Turkey has been the leading political ally of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) for the last decade, if not longer. Turkey has been the leading investor in the region, with Turkish companies literally “building” the Kurdish region over the years. This might be news for those who think of the Kurdish socialist militias armed by the U.S. military, the PKK/PYD, as the only Kurds in the region. In reality, the U.S.-backed Kurdish socialist PYD militia constitute a tiny minority among the Kurds in the Middle East. Compared to the PYD’s totalitarian one-party state  in Syria, and the totalitarian Iranian regime that does not hesitate to execute Kurdish dissidents and crush any form of meaningful opposition, the KRG offers a seemingly more pluralist and competitive environment in which a more mainstream and popular form of Kurdishness could survive. These features of the KRG made it the natural ally of Turkey, where a competitive democratic and pluralist atmosphere facilitated the growth of diverse forms of Kurdishness, including conservative, socialist, liberal, Islamic and secular varieties of Kurdish identity. Equally importantly, unlike the anti-religious PYD dictatorship in Syria, and the anti-Sunni sectarian totalitarian regime in Iran, both Turkey and the KRG accommodated, embraced, and even promoted Islamic religiosity as a core component of their conservative democratic vision for Kurds and non-Kurds alike. Turkey and the KRG, along with Qatar, and in certain respects also Pakistan, represented a “third way” or a “third model” distinct from the Middle Eastern regimes supported by the Russian-Iranian axis on the one hand, and those supported by the American-Israeli axis on the other.
Between pro-Russian, pro-Iranian, and pro-American minority dictatorships
This difference was, and still is, the most visible in Syria, where the Russian-Iranian axis is supporting the ideological sectarian minority dictatorship of the Assad regime, whereas the United States is supporting an even smaller ethnic and ideological (Kurdish socialist) armed faction. In stark contrast, Turkey has been supporting Free Syrian Army factions, which are much more representative of the mainstream Sunni Muslim majority in Syria than the ideological and sectarian minority factions supported by Russia, Iran, and the United States. Turkey, as the oldest multiparty regime in the region since 1908, and with the largest number of Kurdish citizens in the world, and the KRG-in-Iraq at a smaller scale since 2003, seemed to offer freer and pluralist environments for Kurds in the Middle East, compared to the violent repression of Kurdish masses by the Assad regime, the PYD, and Iran. In response to such mass repression, hundreds of thousands of Kurds “voted with their feet” by fleeing PYD-held areas in Syria and chose to come to either Turkey or the KRG as safe havens where diverse forms of Kurdish identity can be expressed within a more democratic and pluralist environment. Once the democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in Egypt, the KRG remained another obvious candidate with which Turkey could form an “axis of democracy” in the Middle East. In a nutshell, these were the key political, economic, and ideological pillars of Turkey’s alliance with and assistance to the KRG. Against this background, the KRG almost unilaterally and somewhat surprisingly withdrew from its alliance with Turkey by holding an illegitimate referendum for secession from Iraq. This existential choice also amounts to an ethnic nationalist preference of not wanting to share the same political community and sovereignty with Arabs, Turkmens, and other non-Kurds.
KRG’s secessionist referendum could be indicative of a geopolitical ‘axis change’
The KRG could have been considered part of the pro-democratic axis led by Turkey, which was supportive of the anti-authoritarian uprisings during the Arab Spring, as I have argued elsewhere  at greater length. The peak of Turkey’s democratic idealist optimism was the first (and only) competitive democratic parliamentary and presidential elections Egypt had following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak. However, the popular democratic tide was crushed with the military coup in Egypt of July 2013, and the Arab Spring turned into an Arab Winter shortly thereafter with violent authoritarian crackdowns and civil wars that claimed the lives of thousands of civilians in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. The leading Western powers that originally advocated democratization in the Middle East including the removal of the Assad regime in Syria, such as the United States and France, gradually abandoned this goal and even began to openly support military dictators such as the putschist Gen. Fatah al-Sisi in Egypt. Turkey and Qatar remained the only open supporters of the popular democratic opposition in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. The siege of Qatar , which I discussed at length here, was an attempt to isolate Qatar and by extension, Turkey, and to break the Turkish-Qatari alliance as such. The attempt to isolate Qatar and to break the Turkish-Qatari alliance failed, but it brought about a decisive change in the line of succession to the Saudi Arabian throne, with immediate negative consequences . Nonetheless, Turkey’s regional alliance network mostly survived the challenge that was mounted with the siege of the Qatar.
The referendum in the KRG has been the second major challenge to Turkey’s alliance network in the Middle East, and unlike in the case of Qatar, the Turkish-KRG alliance seems to have fractured if not shattered under the pressure of the KRG’s unilateral secession from Iraq. Iran and Russia vehemently opposed the secessionist referendum, while the United States disagreed with the referendum decision, but in a softer tone. In contrast, Israel, the linchpin of the pro-American alliance network in the Middle East, was the most vocal state supporting the referendum. Following the preceding observations, it is possible to interpret the KRG’s unilateral secession from Iraq, despite Turkey’s well-known and principled opposition to such a move, as being indicative of the KRG’s geopolitical “axis change” away from the Turkish-Qatari axis and toward the American-Israeli axis.
Being opposed to the pro-Iranian government in Baghdad does not make the KRG automatically pro-democratic or anti-authoritarian. Opponents of pro-Iranian regimes might just as well be pro-American authoritarian regimes, as the examples of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and the PKK/PYD dictatorship in northeastern Syria demonstrate. In fact, both pro-Russian Iran and pro-American Saudi Arabia diverted the democratic potential of the Arab Spring to sectarian warfare, and hence together they crushed movements with a popular democratic potential such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria. It is not without reason that some of the pro-American Gulf monarchies attempted to isolate and punish Turkey and Qatar for their support of the opposition movements in Egypt and Syria. Thus, the referendum may be indicative of the KRG’s “axis change” toward the pro-American totalitarian regimes in the region, such as the UAE and the PYD, and away from the Turkey-led “third axis.”
Israel’s support for KRG, Rojava, and any other new non-Arab entity is not surprising
Israeli support for KRG’s secession from Arabs, Turkmens, and other ethnic groups in the Middle East is the least surprising element in this controversy. Yet Israeli support was often overemphasized without being explained in many of the news stories about the referendum. The explanation for the Israeli support for KRG’s secession is rather simple, straightforward, and consistent with 70 years of Israeli grand strategy: To divide and weaken the Arab nation-states surrounding Israel. This objective can be achieved by supporting any secessionist movement within the Arab states, and by supporting any non-Arab states that could encircle, threaten, and in any case distract Arab public opinion and military power away from Israel. This is why Israel forged strong military and political alliances with pre-revolutionary Iran, Turkey, and far-away Ethiopia, all of which are non-Arab states that could balance, contain, and threaten Arab states that threatened Israel, such as Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. To summarize, “the potential enemy of my actual enemy can be my friend.” Both the PYD and the KRG are perfect candidates for being Israeli allies against the Arabs of Syria and Iraq, as well as against Iran and Turkey, if necessary. Thus, Israeli support for the KRG’s secession is certainly real, and it has a very clear and easily understandable realist logic behind it.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.