SEDAT LACINER & OTHERS: Conflict between Syrian Kurdish PYD &Kurdistan’s Barzani deepens

By Sinem Cengiz – Todays Zaman – November 10, 2013 – ANKARA,— As the crisis in Syria escalates, the disagreement between Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), is also intensifying on Turkey’s doorstep.

The tension between Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, and the PKK is not something new; however, as the crisis in Syria deepens and as Syrian Kurds recently gained ground in Syria’s north after a fierce struggle with the al-Qaeda-linked groups, the disputes among Kurds, particularly between the PYD and Barzani-supported Kurdish parties, have emerged. Troubled with the PYD’s attitude in western Kurdistan [northern Syria], the KRG has reiterated its discomfort and said the PYD has gone too far in committing violence against other Kurdish groups in Syria.

While the PYD is trying to expand its power in the northern part of Syria, Barzani is after extending his political sway over the same region– through various Kurdish parties — in an effort to come out as representative of Kurds in the region.

Sedat Laçiner, rector of Çanakkale 18 Mart University, said that unlike the other groups in Syria, Kurds are not united. “There is a serious rift between Barzani and the PYD, and this rift has existed for decades. Barzani wants to be the leader of all Kurds in the region. Both the PYD and Barzani are competing to get the power in Syria,” said Laçiner.

“There is a Baghdad-Damascus-PKK axis, while on the other side there is the KRG-Ankara-Washington axis,” Laçiner told Sunday’s Zaman. There were reports that due to the PYD’s pressure on Kurds in Syria, Barzani made a move and called Salih Muslim, the co-leader of the PYD, to northern Iraq, where Barzani delivered a strong warning. There were also claims that Barzani regards Muslim not as a Kurdish leader but as a collaborator of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the regime’s tool.

The existing tension between Barzani and the PYD further escalated after Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) prevented PYD leader Muslim from entering the KRG — something that the KDP has denied. Turkey, a country greatly affected by incidents in neighboring Syria and decades-long terrorism, is trying to work with Barzani in Iraq and Muslim in Syria.

Beril Dedeoğlu, an academic at Galatasaray University, said that rather than a scenario in which the PYD and Barzani cooperate against Ankara, a rift between two Kurdish groups plays into hands of Turkey. “However, the best option for Turkey is to play a mediator role between these groups. This would be much more advantageous than benefiting from the rift among Kurds,” Dedeoğlu told Sunday’s Zaman.

While throwing its support behind Barzani due to several reasons, including economic cooperation between Ankara and Erbil and the settlement process that aims to disarm the PKK, Turkey also held talks with the PYD. Muslim recently paid visits to Turkey for talks with Turkish officials — considered as a situation of Turkey breaking the ice with the Syrian Kurdish group after a period of hostility.

The talks were hailed as a breakthrough in relations with the PYD, as Ankara had previously avoided dialogue with the group. But whether the talks produced progress remains to be seen, as Muslim later complained about Turkish support for opposition forces fighting against the PYD in northern Syria.

On the other side, Turkey enjoys close relations with Barzani as both sides benefit from this partnership. As a growing country, Turkey desperately needs energy, and the KRG appears to be one of the best options for Turkey’s energy needs. The two sides inked energy deals to further improve economic relations.

Meanwhile, Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the KRG, paid an official visit to Turkey in late October to discuss several issues, including the Syrian crisis and the current situation in Iraq.

Regarding the situation in Syria’s north, the Turkish government and the KRG adopted a similar attitude, being in opposition to the PYD’s creation of a political entity in northwestern Syria under its own control.

“The PKK is aiming to create with force a Kurdish region in Syria. This is an alarming scenario for Turkey because a similar region like the KRG in Iraq would be established in Syria as well,” said Laçiner. Laçiner maintained that the PYD’s fight with al-Qaeda groups in Syria is in Ankara’s favor as the Kurdish group exerts all its power in Syria rather than conducting terrorist activities in Turkey.

Also, the Turkish government and Barzani put their support behind the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC), a group that has agreed to join the main Syrian opposition body, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

However, the same support does not seem to be given to the Syrian Kurdish Supreme Council, which is an umbrella organization made up of Syrian Kurdish organizations and parties including the PYD.

In order to gather all the Kurdish groups in Syria under one roof — a situation that Turkey favors as well — Barzani brought together the PYD and the KNC at a conference in Erbil in July of last year. Under the deal that came to be known as the Erbil Agreement, the PYD and the KNC joined forces under the Syrian Kurdish Supreme Council. However, disagreements between the PYD and KNC remained. The establishment of a pro-Barzani faction within the KNC has reportedly aggravated the dispute. Also, the PYD refuses to join the anti-Assad opposition as the opposition has failed to accept Kurdish demands for autonomy in areas in northern Syria populated by Kurds.

Atilla Sandıklı, president of the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM), stated that it would be Turkey’s loss if the rift reaches an armed level between the Kurdish groups. KRG spokesperson Safeen Dizayee noted that the KRG has supported all the Kurdish groups and hosted meetings bringing them together. “In order to maintain unity, we did our utmost to bring them to the table. Last year, a protocol was signed between the PYD and other Kurdish groups. Unfortunately, the PYD didn’t obey this protocol. Currently, the PYD is trying to capture the areas belonging to other Kurdish groups,” said Dizayee.