Realities behind historic Erdogan-Barzani meeting

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Article Summary
The historic meeting between Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan has caused serious rifts among Kurdish groups.

The Diyarbakir meeting of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani is significant in many aspects. Due to intra-Kurdish political divisions, the meeting — held as part of the [Kurdish] opening process in Turkey — angered the duo of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Its reverberations are likely to spark serious political rows in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

Barzani’s visit to Diyarbakir seriously irked the PKK-BDP camp. His cooperation with Erdogan is a major blow to the stature and influence of the PKK-BDP quarter and [PKK leader] Abdullah Ocalan, who sees himself as the “sole determining player” in the settlement process. Turkey’s decision to play the Barzani card signals an intention to offset Ocalan and the PKK-BDP duo in the settlement process by drawing on the huge popularity Barzani enjoys among Turkey’s Kurds.

Leadership rivalry

The Diyarbakir meeting is important also in the context of Ocalan and Barzani’s long-standing rivalry over leadership in determining the course of Kurdish nationalism. At present, Barzani holds the political leadership in Northern Iraq and a respected stature among Kurds, while the PKK-BDP camp — much to Barzani’s annoyance — prevails in Turkey, Syria and Iran.

Historically, the Barzani clan has been the main actor in setting the course of Kurdish nationalism. But the Ocalan-led PKK-BDP camp is now contesting their political leadership and trying to supersede it, prompting Barzani to take action on a regional level. In this context, Barzani’s visit to Diyarbakir was a highly symbolic move to boost his clout right in the lands where the PKK-BDP duo was born and grew. Moreover, Turkey sanctioned and coordinated the move, sending out a message that it is Barzani whom it sees as the leader of Kurdish nationalism.

In placing so much value on Barzani, Turkey is seeking to present a second option to its Kurds who back demands for Kurdish rights but disprove of the PKK-BDP duo’s aggressive policies. The timing of the move — right in the run-up to the municipal elections [in March] — is a warning to PKK-BDP quarters. Barzani’s visit to Diyarbakir on Erdogan and his party’s initiative and the air of camaraderie Barzani and Erdogan put on display aim to show Turkey’s Kurds that a different Kurdish rhetoric is possible — one that rejects the confrontational PKK-BDP rhetoric and is reconciled with the state. Hence, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has made a major political maneuver ahead of the municipal polls to force the PKK-BDP duo to tone down its rhetoric and moderate its attitudes with respect to the settlement process.

"Leadership" emphasis

Barzani is seriously irked by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the PKK-BDP duo, taking control of [Kurdish-majority] areas in northern Syria, which the Kurds call “Rojava.” Hence, Barzani’s visit to Diyarbakir together with Erdogan is a move to send out a message from the very region the PKK-BDP duo sees as its home base that Turkey, too, has recognized him as the political leader of Kurdish nationalism.

Earlier, Barzani denied PYD leader Salih Muslim entry to his region and then traveled to Diyarbakir together with Erdogan. Both moves were his response to PYD efforts to sideline him in northern Syria. In the meantime, the PKK-BDP camp moved to elect an 82-strong assembly in northern Syria in a bid to proclaim “transitional autonomy” in the towns it controls. Thus, the intra-Kurdish rift is creating not only a political but also geographical division.

For Turkey, the Barzani-PYD rift is a welcome development, too. Without economic, logistical and political support from Barzani-run Northern Iraq, Rojava is likely to run into serious trouble and the PKK-BDP duo — which controls the PYD — could eventually seek to reconcile with the Turkey-Barzani pair.

The prime minister’s personal invitation to Barzani is also Turkey’s way of saying that it will maintain its economic and political partnership with Northern Iraq. The message is addressed to the Iraqi central government, Iran and undoubtedly the United States. At a time when Turkey is moving to rebuild its partnerships with Iraq and Iran in what some call a foreign policy “reset,” Turkey’s ties with Northern Iraq and Barzani are intended to show that this overhaul process will involve no change in its approach vis-a-vis Northern Iraq.

Barzani, for his part, sees benefit in strengthening ties with Turkey at a time when the doors of Iraq and Syria have been slammed in his face and the United States has turned up pressure on him to reconcile with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He wants to make sure that Turkey does not sacrifice him while mending ties with Iran and Iraq, standing by Turkey in the process and seeking to strengthen his hand.

The "Kurdistan" rhetoric

By inviting Barzani to Diyarbakir, Turkey has also attempted to show that it favors a “pluralistic” approach in the settlement of the Kurdish conflict, a message addressed also to the PKK-BDP quarters. It has tried to prove to Turkey’s Kurds, the people whom the PKK-BDP relies on or seeks to control, that other alternatives are available and could be put onstage if need be. Moreover, it has demonstrated that it is capable of enlisting Barzani’s support to strengthen those alternatives.

It is no surprise that, in the meantime, the Free Cause Party (Huda-Par) — the political arm of the [Turkish] Hezbollah — stepped up its activities and began to confront the PKK-BDP camp. This is another indication that Turkey is aiming to weaken the PKK-BDP support base — both by moving closer to Barzani and doing nothing to curb Huda-Par’s rise.

The whole process may eventually result in three distinct camps to express Kurdish political aspirations: the ruling party for the short term, which could be replaced in the mid term by an alternative Kurdish conservative party created on the basis of the Barzani-AKP alliance; the pro-Hezbollah, radical Islamist Huda-Par; and the PKK-BDP.

The reverberations in the Turkish, Kurdish and international media of the duet between the two great Kurdish singers Sivan Perwer and Ibrahim Tatlises, the speeches Erdogan and Barzani made to the huge crowd and Erdogan’s first use of the word “Kurdistan” could all be seen as Turkey’s drive to take exclusive control of the settlement process by taking advantage of intra-Kurdish disputes. Yet, the success of this process could be measured only in the mid and long term, depending on how inter-Kurdish relations develop and what reactions and how much support the Turkish populace displays, especially in the elections.

Found in: turkey-iraq relations, turkey, recep tayyip erdogan, pkk, northern iraq, massoud barzani, iraq
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