Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is paying a critical visit to northern Iraq to seek more cooperation from the Iraqi Kurdish leadership amid concerns over an emerging ‘terrorist threat’ from northern Syria, even though Iraqi Kurds are unlikely to antagonize PKK-linked groups
Davutoğlu is visiting northern Iraq amid Turkish concerns over emerging Kurdish rule in Syria's northern cities along the Turkish border following the withdrawal of Bashar al-Assad's forces from these predominantly Kurdish-populated areas to fight opposition forces in Damascus and Aleppo. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has warned that Turkey will intervene if “terrorist formations” emerge along its border.
Turkey and Iraqi Kurds have built close ties over the past few years, after Barzani committed to supporting Turkey's efforts against the PKK, either in combating PKK bases in northern Iraq or tackling PKK-affiliated groups in northern Syria.
However, these ties be threatened if the PKK finds a new home in northern Syria as Barzani drew criticism from Turkey when he announced that Kurdish defectors from the Syrian army had been given military training in northern Iraq.
Speaking ahead of his trip, Davutoğlu said that his talks with Barzani will focus on active cooperation against terrorism and on the developments in Syria. “Barzani has promised support in Turkey’s struggle against terrorism. His regional administration has shown unequivocal efforts to this end, but these are not enough for Turkey,” Davutoğlu said during an iftar (fast-breaking) dinner with Turkish journalists on Sunday evening.
An official visit by the foreign minister to northern Iraq has been long-planned as Barzani has already visited Turkey twice this year. However, the visit was moved up because of security concerns perceived by Turkey due to the military presence of the PKK-affiliated Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) in northern Syria.
Professor Serhat Erkmen of Ahi Evran University told Today’s Zaman that Turkish concerns over increasing PKK influence in northern Syria will be at the top of the agenda during the foreign minister’s visit.
The PYD has militias in Kurdish-controlled regions in northern Syria, and this gives the PYD significant leverage over other Kurdish groups that together form the Kurdish National Council (KNC). Barzani has recently shown success in brokering a compromise between these groups, establishing the Supreme Kurdish Council out of the PYD and the KNC.
However, the Kurdish leader is unlikely to antagonize the PYD or try to exclude it from the political process in Syria, according to experts. “Having ties with the PYD, which is greatly influenced by the PKK, would increase Barzani’s influence among Syrian Kurds. I do not think Iraqi Kurds would abandon [their ties] with the PYD,” Erkmen asserted.
The KNC and PYD of the new Supreme Kurdish Council do not exactly see eye to eye on a potential Syrian Kurdish administration. While the KNC seeks a federalist or politically decentralized but united Syria, the PYD seeks as its end-goal a confederation with Iraqi Kurdistan.
However, the heterogeneous population in northern Syria, home not only to Kurds but also to Arabs and Turkmens, would make the establishment of a separate Kurdish region difficult.
Turkey is not in principle against the establishment of a Kurdish structure in northern Syria as long as such a decision is made within a democratic process that involves the Syrian people. However de-facto controls by militia groups -- especially by PKK-affiliated ones -- based on imposing hard power on other groups in the region is something that Turkey rejects.
Analysts also maintained that a PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish de facto administration would likely cause the terrorism problem to spread along the Turkish-Syrian border, including to the Turkish provinces of Kilis and Mardin, which have well-established, functioning economies.
Atilla Sandıklı, head of the İstanbul-based Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BİLGESAM), also asserted that Turkey should never let itself be misunderstood in the international arena and be seen as opposed to the democratic struggle of Syrian Kurds. However, he maintained that Turkey should show a strong negative stance against de-facto establishments in north Syria.
Sandıklı also maintained that Barzani does not cooperate enough with Turkey in fighting with terrorism. “Barzani does not show enough initiative to eliminate the PKK existence in Syria, and this is something that frustrates Turkey,” he said.
On the other hand, Veysel Ayhan, an expert on the Middle East from Abant İzzet Baysal University, claimed that the timing of Davutoğlu’s visit could be significant, given that the KRG’s Peshmergha forces are now involved in a conflict with the Iraqi army over disputes of control over the Peshabur post on the Iraqi-Syrian border, which could turn into a more severe crisis.
“Turkey could manage to persuade Barzani to work with it, taking advantage of the pressure that this event [military tension with central Iraqi government] has imposed on him,” Ayhan maintained.
The KRG and the Nouri al-Maliki-led government are locked in a long-running dispute over the oil and natural gas resources of northern Iraq. Barzani is also a strong supporter of a campaign by coalition partners in the multiethnic and multi-sectarian government to unseat Maliki due to unresolved economic disputes with the Maliki-led government.
Davutoğlu’s visit to northern Iraq coincides with SNC leader Abdulbaset Sieda’s visit to northern Iraq, who arrived in Arbil on Sunday for talks with the KRG leader and other Kurdish leaders. Officials from two Syrian Kurdish groups, the PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) of Syria -- two Kurdish forces that do not answer to the SNC – were also in Arbil as Barzani apparently seeks to broker an agreement between the two Kurdish groups and the SNC leader.
According to Ayhan, who is director of the Ankara-based International Middle East Research Center, Davutoğlu’s talks with Barzani would also be encouraging in terms of creating bridges between the SNC and Kurdish groups, but the SNC is unlikely to persuade Kurdish groups to join its ranks. The Turkish government sees the SNC as the sole legitimate representative of the interests of Syrian Kurdish, choosing to disregard the troubled ties between Syrian Kurds and the SNC.
The foreign minister, meanwhile, met with National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Undersecretary Hakan Fidan on Monday, ahead of his visit to Arbil. There was no statement issued after the meeting.