Things have changed drastically for the Kurds of Northern Iraq. Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, is being welcomed into the White House. In Turkey, he is pampered rather than being labeled a bandit.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Turkey’s most important allies in the Middle East are the Iraqi Kurds. There is no doubt that this radical change can be attributed to the empowerment of the civilian authority in Turkey, and U.S. support for the Iraqi Kurds, but we must not underestimate Barzani’s astute moves.
First, he played his cards wisely during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. His armed forces, the Peshmerga, led the way in toppling Saddam while he rigidly opposed the entry and control of Turkish soldiers in his region. “If need be, I will fight against the Turks,” he said. At that time his words caused much anger in Turkey but certainly played a part in keeping the Turkish army from walking into a quagmire.
Then, despite all of the pressures of Ankara, he declared that he would not be part of a fight against other Kurds, including the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK]. However, by not taking up arms against the PKK, he was able to mediate in secret talks between Turkey and the militants. He went on to develop trade ties with Turkey, which led to the opening of a Turkish consulate in Erbil.
It is not a secret that although such talks have been severed since then, indirect communication with the militants is still done via Iraqi Kurds. Barzani also pays attention to his relations with Turkey’s Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party [BDP], and BDP parliamentarians are frequently his guests. With the onset of the Syrian crisis, Iraqi Kurds have become even more important. Ankara’s grandest expectation today is for Barzani to persuade the Syrian Kurds into joining the Syrian National Council [SNC]. Barzani is taking his usual balanced and prudent approach to the issue.
Recently he convened in Erbil with all of the Syrian Kurdish groups, with the exception of the PYD, an extension of Turkish PKK, but he resisted Ankara’s urges and advised the Syrian Kurds to keep their cards to their chests instead of joining the Sunni-dominated SNC. He also will not allow confrontation between these groups and the PYD.
Thinking ahead in macro terms, Barzani has already indicated that he is jockeying for the role of national Kurdish leader. Just as it is with Ankara, his relationship with Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government in Baghdad is poor. He offered to harbor Sunni Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi, who is facing prosecution from Maliki. This move put him in the same camp as Turkey, who supports the Sunnis against Maliki. However, do not rule out a Kurdish deal with Maliki due to the fact that the most pertinent issue is actually dividing oil revenues.
Furthermore, it would be misleading to say that the Iraqi Kurds are confronting Iran, which supports Maliki’s government. Iraqi Kurds share their eastern border with Iran, and they have to maintain at least normal—if not warm—relations with Tehran. The PJAK, the PKK’s Iranian extension, is currently fighting against the Iranian government, but was forced to withdraw from the Iraqi border due to pressure from Barzani. Barzani has been careful to nurture Iraqi Kurdish relations with Tehran.
America, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Like a master juggler, Barzani is keeping all the balls in the air. Step by step, he is marching toward independence.