The Erdoğan-Barzani alliance: A Turkish policy classic

The Erdoğan-Barzani alliance: A Turkish policy classic

The visit to Diyarbakır of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani was presented as “a historical event” by government circles and designed as a great political show. In fact, it deserves to be called “classical” or “antique,” rather than “historical,” as Barzani has always been thought of as a lever to “solve” the Kurdish problem since the times of late Turkish President Turgut Özal. At best, Turkey thought to use Barzani’s friendship as an alternative to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to appeal to Kurds. At worst, Barzani was thought to be an ally to crush PKK, as happened during the 1994-1996 inter-Kurdish war. Time and again, Barzani’s influence and his right-wing Kurdish nationalism with its references to religion, were thought to be a remedy against the PKK’s influence in southeast Turkey. No matter that all attempts had failed, PM Erdoğan decided to try it again. 

This time, the Turkish government and Barzani have more in common, since both are trying hard to undermine the political power of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (the PYD, or the PKK’s Syrian branch) in northeast Syria. Well, there is also the pipeline issue, but I think it comes second, since Turkey and the KRG finally had to recognize the fact that they cannot go alone, and had to make up with Baghdad government. Besides, the circumstances that led Barzani and Erdoğan to seek an alliance should not deceive us that there are also differences between them. That is why Barzani had to suffice with a very short and ambivalent speech, as opposed to Erdoğan’s long and spirited address to Kurds in Turkey and beyond. It seems that Barzani is well aware that friendship with Turkey’s government could diminish his legitimacy as a Kurdish leader. In addition, Barzani does not rule out a Kurdish political status in the future of Syria, while Turkey defends the unity of Syria. Barzani just wants to extend his power to Syria, at the expense of the PYD’s control of the region.

Finally, the so-called “historical” Diyarbakır meeting cannot have any meaning in terms of the peace process or the solution of the Kurdish issue, as it is not Barzani (and the KGR) but rather the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan (and the PKK) who is the interlocutor of the process. Indeed, it is the reluctance of past and present governments to acknowledge this basic fact that hinders all chances of a solution. Öcalan and the PKK represent those Kurds who crave some sort of self-rule or “political status,” anything less than some sort of autonomy will not do. Theirs is a struggle and search for the maintenance of Kurdish honor - anything that targets their dignity will not do. Their cause is a matter of “national” survival - individual and cultural rights will not do. Turkey as a whole, its state, its political parties and governments, have long refused to see the reality and after all that the present government still repeats the mistake.

So far, Turkey sought not only to crush the Kurdish political struggle by all means, but also run after all sorts of alliances from the international community and Western friends to Islamic extremists (such as the notorious Hizbullah in Diyarbakır in the 1990). All failed. It’s time to wake up! Neither a popular regional leader nor popular Kurdish singers can change the reality.

As for Barzani, his current line of politics (especially concerning the Syrian Kurds) not only risks his popularity as a pan-Kurdish leader, but also may end up as a bad calculation. It is true that the U.S. and the Western world seem to prefer him and his party, as opposed to the PYD in Syria and the PKK in Turkey. Nevertheless, a regional solution of the Kurdish issue cannot solely be built on the leadership of Barzani, and will eventually require dealing with other actors. Then, surely, the other actors will need to revise their radicalism and anti-Westernism, at least to counter the balance of the Western-Turkish alliance.