A conversation with Barzani’s aide
Last week I shared the critical messages of Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani, on the KRG's bid for independence and relations with Turkey. Now it’s time for his assessments on the region.
Hussein argued that four capitals in the region have to cooperate against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threat: Ankara, Arbil, Baghdad and Tehran. “We are working to realize this four-footed cooperation,” he said. Obviously all of them are eager for this alliance. However, Iran has recently declared its stance against Kurdistan’s independence. Hussein said this was their statement for the time being, but it might change in the future.
He argued that Arbil would not experience any conflict with Turkey, adding that their top priority was their relations with their neighbors. According to him, Kurdistan would not take any step without their consent. But how are they going to ally with Baghdad, given that their relations have been ruptured? “Baghdad is not our enemy. We have to have good relations with Baghdad,” Hussein said – implying, of course, an era after Nouri al-Maliki.
What about Rojava, northern Syria? The dominant party in Rojava, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has a close affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and has been fighting against ISIL for a long time. However, the relations between PYD leader Salih Muslim and Barzani have been sour. When I ask Hussein if they would help the PYD in their fight against ISIL, he said their priority was that various Kurdish groups in Rojava must first unite. “Then they would be able to defend themselves anyway,” he said, without pronouncing Muslim’s name.
What about the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP)? Its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and Barzani, who have been at odds for a long time, exchanged letters in March. Hussein says that there isn’t a big problem between the two parties. Obviously, relations are still sour. However, he didn’t comment on whether this is related to Arbil’s tension with the PYD and underlined that they considered the PKK and the PYD separate. Hussein concluded this topic, emphasizing that the Kurds in the region had to unite.
The strategic interests of Arbil and Rojava fully overlap under the current circumstances. This is why the PKK had offered help to Barzani when ISIL captured Mosul. This hints that a rapprochement between Barzani and the PKK and also Barzani-Rojava might not be that far away.
The unification of the Kurds in the region would also be in Ankara’s favor since today Kurds are Turkey’s closest ally in the region, promoting stability and security. Kurds are Turkey’s partners not only in Iraq but also in Syria against both Bashar al-Assad and the ISIL threat. Hence the Kurds’ reconciliation would strengthen Turkey’s hand and also be critical for the region’s stability.
This seems to be Ankara’s new game plan anyway. Most recently there are many signs that Turkey is breaking the ice with Salih Muslim. However, the recent clashes between the PYD’s military wing and Turkish soldiers along the Turkey-Syria border point to the fact that this not enough anymore. Ankara should consider Rojava not only as a contact point, but also as a partner. It should go beyond keeping up with the developments in the region and take the initiative toward unifying the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. This would also boost the ongoing peace process in Turkey.
The balance of power in the region has turned upside down. Alliances are being rebuilt. This brings along as many risks as opportunities since it allows for the repair of longstanding tensions and could even turn them into cooperation. In addition, the fact that the United States is staying out of the region has opened the way for regional alliances and leadership. This picture presents an unprecedented opportunity for Turkey that cannot be missed.