Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly on Monday in favor of a referendum on independence for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and neighboring disputed territories. The Turkish government, in close coordination with Iran and Iraq, has been a vocal opponent of Kurdish independence. Ankara’s growing threats against KRG President Masoud Barzani, however, have lately given way to vitriol not only against Kurds, but also against Jews and Israel. If Turkey’s jingoistic reactions continue to escalate, Ankara risks losing both its painstakingly-built relationship with Erbil and frail rapprochement process with Jerusalem.
Two days before the Kurdish referendum, the Turkish parliament held an extraordinary session to extend the mandate for deploying troops in Iraq and Syria for another year. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan then hinted at military action against the KRG, warning that “Turkish troops could suddenly arrive one night.” Turkish and Iraqi soldiers, meanwhile, held joint exercises on the Turkish side of the border.
Following the referendum vote, the Turkish government moved from threats and posturing to punitive action. Ankara blocked entry into Turkey from the main border crossing with the KRG and suspended flights to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. In addition, Turkey’s broadcasting authority removed three KRG broadcasters – Rudaw, K24, and Waar – from the Turkish satellite service Turksat. Erdogan also threatened to cut off KRG access to the pipeline that carries Kurdish oil to the outside world through a Turkish port.
Predictably, the Turkish government’s vocal anti-KRG stance has triggered anti-Kurdish vitriol, especially among pro-government circles, and led to what one analyst called a “race for hate speech.” The reactions, however, soon evolved from racial slurs targeting Kurds into anti-Semitic insults targeting both world Jewry and Israel. While Israel was one of the few countries to declare its support for KRG independence, the rapid degeneration of political criticism into outright anti-Semitism demonstrates the extent to which the Turkish government continues to promote outright bigotry.
A senior advisor to Erdogan, who also serves on the board of Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund, penned an op-ed asking “why Israel encourages Barzani to commit suicide.” He then shared his op-ed with a tweet, calling the Kurdish president a dog, which he later deleted. The aide’s insults echoed earlier slurs in a pro-government news outlet that referred to Barzani as the “donkey of Greater Israel.” The same outlet also printed a cartoon labeling the alleged Jewish masterminds behind Barzani as “Zionist dogs.”
Anti-Kurdish and anti-Semitic rhetoric by government officials and pro-government media triggered a similar wave of hate speech among the public. On social media, numerous posts claimed that Iraqi Kurds were actually Jews, or traitors serving Jews. In Istanbul, a banner posted on one of the main boulevards claimed that Barzani is a Jew, and his real goal is to establish “Greater Israel.”
The Turkish president also joined the public’s anti-Israeli chorus and tweeted that “If Israel is the only one that backs [the referendum], then there is no innocence or legitimacy,” and warned Iraqi Kurds that “flying Israeli flags won’t save [them].” Erdogan also announced that Israel’s support for the Kurdish independence could negatively affect diplomatic ties between Ankara and Jerusalem.
Growing anti-Kurdish and anti-Semitic vitriol by Turkish officials and the public puts Turkey on a dangerous path at home and abroad. One opposition lawmaker already warned that the country’s “climate of hate” could lead to hate crimes targeting minorities. In addition, Ankara risks not only antagonizing Kurds on both sides of the Iraqi-Turkish border, but also the possibility of mending relations with Israel.
Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.