Turkey-KRG alliance to shift regional balance

19 November 2013 /SİNEM CENGİZ, DİYARBAKIR/ANKARA ZAMAN – The close ties between Ankara and Arbil, which gained momentum after the historic visit to Turkey by Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq, are likely to have a tremendous impact on the regional power balance as well as on the settlement process launched by the Turkish government last year to end the decades-old Kurdish conflict.

Barzani, who is an important and respected figure for Kurds in the region, was in Diyarbakır, a city of symbolic value for the Kurdish political struggle in Turkey, this weekend with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Barzani’s visit drew great attention not only in Turkey but worldwide, as his Diyarbakır visit came at a critical time. With this visit, Turkey and the KRG defined their red lines and agreed on a further development of ties and cooperation on mutual issues.

Turkey’s alliance with the KRG is based on Barzani’s support for the peace process, as well as energy cooperation and regional mutual interests, including a shared opposition to Kurdish autonomy in Syria, said Bora Bayraktar, an academic specializing in Turkish foreign policy and the Middle East at Kültür University, to Today’s Zaman.The Erdoğan-Barzani meeting came after a stalling of the settlement process, as the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), dissatisfied with the government’s lack of action on the democratization program that is part of the process, announced in early September that it had stopped its withdrawal from the country. Furthermore, the Kurds in Syria had gained considerable ground before the meeting took place, and Iraq’s central government in Baghdad had agreed to normalize ties with Ankara, which were at a low point for various reasons.

Ahead of Barzani’s visit, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) had expressed its hope that the Kurdish leader’s visit would contribute to the settlement process, saying the visit would “crown” the ongoing settlement process.

Barzani’s historic visit to Diyarbakır, a predominantly Kurdish city, during the settlement process seems to have given the process some momentum. During his speech at a rally in the city, Barzani reiterated his support for the Turkish government’s settlement process, saying, “I want my Kurdish and Turkish brothers to support the settlement process.”

Meanwhile, Erdoğan also said the word “Kurdistan” publicly for the first time as he greeted the people “of the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.” Since the establishment of the KRG, Turkish officials have preferred to use “Kurdish government” to refer to the regional government. The use of the term “Kurdistan” by a top Turkish official while addressing the people of Diyarbakır was deemed an important step by many, both for relations with Arbil and for the settlement process.

However, Barzani’s visit caused concern in the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is also a party to the settlement process. The BDP previously expressed its fear that the AK Party might use Barzani’s visit to gain votes in the local elections in Turkey’s Southeast, a region largely populated by Kurds and where the BDP has strong voter support.

BDP Co-chairperson Selahattin Demirtaş has stated that Barzani has enough experience to avoid being used as an instrument of “cheap politics,” adding that the KRG leader would pursue a policy based on the struggle of Kurds in Turkey.Meanwhile, the Gorran Movement, the main opposition party in the KRG, harshly criticized Barzani’s visit, saying that the visit aims to strengthen the AK Party’s hand before the Turkish elections.

Turkey, KRG reject PYD autonomy in Syria; group hoists its flag

However, the settlement process was not the only item on the table at the meeting between Barzani and Erdoğan on Saturday. The two leaders also agreed to take a stance against the Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) interim administration in northeast Syria.

Meanwhile, the PYD, a Syrian offshoot of the PKK, displayed its flag in the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, which is some 100 meters away from the Turkish border, two days after Barzani’s visit to Turkey. Last week, the PYD also announced an interim administration that aims to carve out an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region. Barzani, who has accused the PYD of secret deals with the Syrian regime and of imposing its agenda on other Kurdish parties, rejected the PYD’s unilateral declaration. Ankara has also rejected the PYD’s recent declaration of autonomy.

While Turkey and the KRG are cooperating to find a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem and the issue of disarming the terrorist PKK, which has bases in the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, they have also adopted similarly harsh rhetoric towards the PYD, opposing its creation of a political entity in northern Syria. Barzani and Erdoğan agreed that the KRG would not allow a de facto PYD government in northeast Syria. The crisis between Barzani and the PYD is not something new, but it deepened as Syrian Kurds gained ground in Syria’s north after a fierce struggle with al-Qaeda-linked groups.

Ankara juggles Arbil, Baghdad to maintain ties

The visit also came after Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu paid a visit to Baghdad to repair relations with the central Iraqi administration. While opening a fresh page in its relations with Baghdad, Ankara is also trying to maintain warm ties with the KRG. Turkey’s invitation to Barzani is considered a clear message, saying, “Turkey is neither excluding Baghdad nor ignoring the Iraqi Kurds,” or, in other words, Turkey seems to be maintaining its relations with the KRG while pursuing a speedy normalization process with the Iraqi central government.

The third issue of the visit was Barzani and Erdoğan’s agreement that the KRG’s oil would enter world markets through Turkey in six weeks. Given the fact that Turkey’s economic ties with the KRG were one cause of the strained relations between Turkey and Iraq, there is still the question of how Turkey will settle this disputed issue with Baghdad without harming relations with the KRG.

Economic relations with Arbil, particularly related to oil, and Turkey’s bypassing of Baghdad in this relationship angered the central government, which stressed that Turkey should ask the Iraqi government before taking any action in the region.

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 have signed energy deals to further improve economic relations.

“Turkey is acting as though the energy problem has been solved with Baghdad. The reason for the strained ties with Baghdad was Turkey’s energy relationship with the KRG. And now this new agreement seems to be sabotaging the normalization process between Turkey and Iraq,” Serhat Erkmen, an expert at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told Today’s Zaman. Today’s Zaman asked the Iraqi Embassy in Ankara to comment on Barzani’s visit and the points agreed with Erdoğan. Unfortunately, the embassy had not responded by the time the paper went to print.

“However; [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki will not raise the issue at the moment due to the upcoming elections,” added Erkmen.

Close Turkey-KRG alliance disturbs Iran

On the other side, the close alliance between the KRG and Turkey is a concern for Iran, a strong ally to Maliki in Baghdad, said experts.

“Tehran is very uncomfortable with the Turkish-Kurdish alliance. It calls on Turkey to return to its red lines with the Kurds. Iran is aware that any alliance with the Kurds may lead to fragmentation in the region, which will eventually harm its interests as well,” said Bayraktar.Tehran fears the possibility that PKK terrorists may leave Turkey for Iran, thus strengthening Kurdish insurgents in the country. The ongoing truce between the PKK’s Iranian wing, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), and the Iranian regime may face difficulties if a unified Kurdish onslaught against Iranian security forces emerges. “The Kurds were oppressed by Iran and Iraq for many years. Now, they consider Turkey the only reliable partner in the region,” noted Bayraktar. Meanwhile, US Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Barzani over the phone before the latter’s visit to Diyarbakır. Today’s Zaman also contacted the US Embassy in Ankara for comment on the visit, but embassy officials declined to comment, stating that no official statement had come from Washington on the matter. http://www.todayszaman.com/news-331871-turkey-krg-alliance-to-shift-regional-balance.html