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Syria and Turkey Analysis: Ankara Looks to Iraq's Barzani Amid the "Kurdish Spring"

Ahmet Davutoglu with Massoud BarzaniTurkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has met the President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, in Erbil in northern Iraq. His trip had bee introduced by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan:

The situation has come to a different point now. How unpleasant this statement [from Barzani] that "we gave them [Syrian Kurds who fled from the army] training in northern Iraq and sent them back". This shows that this situation is going through different dimensions.

Before Davutoglu left for Erbil, he said Ankara would not accept Syria becoming “another Lebanon”. He added that Turkey would have “no red lines” about a settlement, provided the plans dealt with the position of the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), the Syrian branch of the outlawed Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Ankara’s biggest fear is that a gap in the region’s balance of power could be filled by the PKK-PYD alliance, if not by Barzani’s trained units of Syrian Kurds. Because direct military involvement by Turkey is out of the question, due to regional sensitivities and relations with Moscow, Ankara wanted to see eye-to-eye with Barzani in clearing the area of “unwanted” parties.

So Turkey changed its rhetoric from explicit “red lines” that would not tolerate a Kurdish flag along its southern border, to a more flexible position balancing Kurdish interests and Ankara's security concerns. While avoiding an open alignment with Russia, the Erdogan Government is trying to increase the international pressure on Barzani.

But can Barzani satisfy Ankara really even if he wants to do so?

Barzani was the broker between the PYD and the Kurdish National Council of Syria (KNCS) last month, which brought the unity of Syrian Kurds at a critical stage. At the moment, those Syrian groups are bound to accept Barzani’s upper hand, as it helps provide a safe haven. Barzani lined up Kurdsh peshmerga against Iraqi troops who wanted to cross into the Syrian border, and Barzani will be involved in the region's economic development. (Syria's biggest Kurdish city, Qamishlo, provides around 80% of the country's output of oil, a large share of Syrian GDP.)

Following the meeting with Barzani, Davutoglu said: “The regional administration received our message.” The message was clear: no PYD forces allowed in Syria. The problem with the declaration is that, although it is crystal-clear for Barzani, the plan cannot work. 

First, Washington will be cautious regarding the fate of the Kurdish region of Syria, both during the transition and the post-Assad period. Although Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon voiced opposition to Kurdish autonomy when he was in Istanbul this Monday, this had more to do with Washington’s relations with Moscow rather than with Ankara.

During the post-Assad period, it is in Washington’s interest to keep as many actors as possible involved much parts in the integration of the country while freeing state institutions from the Baath Party. Syrian Kurds are part of this attempted integration not just due to their political and geographic position but also because of their oil. 

Second, at a time while Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is at odds with Barzani, Ankara’s purchases of Kurdish oil will not be enough to alter Barzani’s position. Having signed deals with ExxonMobil and Chevron, Marathon, and Total, the Iraqi Kurds have relatively free hands.

Most importantly, Barzani cannot play one Kurdish group against another in Syria. The KNCS is comprised of 15 political parties, and the PYD’s armed existence is a political guarantee for these factions as its forces protect Kurdish cities. Meanwhile, it is in the PKK’s interest to increase cooperation with PYD, as it will strengthen its identity across borders thanks to the latter's efforts in Syria.

That in turn draws attention to the situation inside Turkey, as pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputy Ozdal Ucer declared the beginning of the “Kurdish Spring” after clashes between Kurds and security forces in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir. The PKK has been holding territory it captures in another southeastern province, Hakkari, while the Turkish Armed Forces has been deploying thousands of troops. Turkish sources claim at least 39 PKK militia have been killed.

If there is a prospect of a Barzani-Ankara deal over Syria, PKK will give the streets back to BDP for a series of civil demonstrations. On the other hand, if the Turkish Government chooses to pursue the military route, despite Washington's desire for a fine balance, this could all be unsettled.

The first positive signal has come from Syria to Davutoglu. The president of the KNCS, Abdulhakim Bashar, said the actions of the PYD have harmed the reputation of Kurds in Syria. Bashar also said that Kurds could join the Free Syrian Army, as regime forces could easily push PYD militia out of the cities it controls. However, these statements are likely to be short-lived: Bashar does not have a high standing in the eyes of many Kurdish people in Syria, just as Barzani may not be foremost in the eyes of Kurdish people in Turkey.

And so Ankara faces its recurring problem: in its search for a post-Assad settlement in Syria involving the Kurds, it cannot escape the situation of the Kurds inside its borders.

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