Barzani and the PKK

Barzani and the PKK

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has announced that it will withdraw its militants to Iraqi Kurdistan. This could cause some trouble for the Iraqi Kurdish administration, and the more frequent diplomatic visits by the Turkish and U.S. governments show that they seem to have noticed Barzani’s concerns. Let’s consider the history of these concerns.

Relations between the PKK and the Iraqi Kurdish groups go back to the late 1970s, when Öcalan was ideologically closer to Talabani than Barzani. However, regional developments and geopolitics forced Barzani and Öcalan to get closer.

In 1982, as the Iran-Iraq War continued, Iran, Syria, Barzani and the PKK formed an alliance in Damascus. Iran persuaded Barzani to cooperate with the PKK. In return, Barzani helped the PKK form its first camps in northern Iraq. This was a hard but necessary choice, as he was stuck between Iran and Iraq. As he positioned himself against Turkey, he also enabled the formation of a new Marxist group with ambitious political objectives. Such an initiative could ultimately have damaged his long-term interests.

The Öcalan-Barzani relationship had its ups and downs over the last three decades. Barzani was struggling against both Saddam and Talabani, and he struggled hard not to lose power in the face of the latter. This dual struggle forced him into an alliance with Turkey.

Barzani was never opposed to a PKK that was not a great challenge to his authority. However, he was opposed to a PKK seeking to be effective among Iraqi Kurds. There are several reasons for this. First, as the leader of Kurdish nationalism, a role he inherited from his father, he would never send away the PKK’s Kurds. Secondly, the PKK indirectly enabled him to have a negotiating position vis-a-vis Turkey. Thirdly, it was not a good idea to alienate the PKK, considering the internal politics of Iraqi Kurdistan. The military, political, and ideological capacity of the PKK could affect the balances among Iraqi Kurds.

As Barzani seeks re-election as prime minister, the political tension in Iraqi Kurdistan will inevitably increase. Moreover, the uncertainties surrounding the relations with Baghdad endure. In this context, it is not good news that a significant number of armed PKK militants will be based in Iraqi Kurdistan. Karayılan, the PKK chief, is trying to alleviate Barzani’s concerns by guaranteeing that the militants will not contact the civilian population. Regardless of past experiences, Barzani probably remembers how his attempts at gaining influence over the Syrian Kurds have been frustrated by the PKK, with the help of Turkey, over the last two years.

All of this shows how the Kurdish problem, operating like communicating vessels, is too complex to be contained within a single state. Change on one side triggers new developments on the other side.