This interview was published in Hurriyet Daily News, July 28, 2012. The interview was conducted by Barçın Yinanç. Photos by Emrah GÜREL
KRG head Masoud Barzani has taken Ankara by surprise by joining hands with the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish group PYD, which has assumed control of several northern Syrian districts, says a foreign policy analyst. Ankara is especially angry because Barzani took the step without first informing Turkey, says Nuh Yılmaz. The transfer of Northern Iraq’s energy sources to international markets via Turkey may be on the agenda as Turkish foreign minister is set to meet Iraqi Kurdish leadership, says analyst Nuh Yılmaz.
Ankara was caught off guard when Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani began cooperating with Kurds in northern Syria who are affiliated with Kurdish militants in Turkey, according to an analyst. Turkey became uneasy after the coalition between Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Barzani and the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD), which is close to the outlawed Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK), took control of several northern Syrian districts along Turkey’s southern border, Nuh Yılmaz of Istanbul’s Marmara University told the Hürriyet Daily News in a recent interview.
What is happening in northern Syria?
As relations with Barzani were going through a good period, Ankara probably did not foresee that the PYD and groups close to Barzani could have taken control of the administration in certain cities in Syria. This came as a surprise to Ankara. Now, Ankara is involved in crisis management and the fact that Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu will go to the region is part of the efforts to manage the crisis. The Syrian administration is annoyed by Turkey’s involvement with the developments in Syria. It wanted to demonstrate the consequences of [this behavior] to Ankara. One dimension of it was the downing of the [Turkish] F-4 plane [on June 22]. Another dimension is the Syrian Kurds. Actually, Turkey had asked Syria to improve the rights of the Syrian Kurds. In fact, Turkey was siding with the Syrian Kurds against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Syria took a reverse act and tried to score against Turkey by strengthening the PKK against other Kurdish groups. The Syrian administration dropped a crisis into Turkey’s lap by leaving certain areas [in the country] to the coalition. Actually it had to pull back its forces. Syria not only pulled back forces from the north but also from the Golan Heights and İdlib in an effort to try and regain control over Damascus and Aleppo. Syria is also trying to put Turkey in a difficult position by creating an opposition [to Turkey’s policies] and tickling certain (domestic) sensitivities. But I don’t think Ankara will panic. It is facing an unforeseen risk and is now thinking about how to deal with it.
Who is controlling the Syrian Kurds? How influential is the PKK or Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in northern Syria?
It is known that the PKK has a traditional [support] base [there], but it is not a large one. On the contrary, the groups close to Barzani were more influential. But in the course of the past year, as relations with Turkey became strained, the Syrian administration took steps to strengthen the PKK.
This means that after sending PKK leader [Abdullah] Öcalan out of the country, Syria continued to harbor the rest of the PKK elements on its soil, and respective Turkish governments did not do much about it.
Not really. The current situation is very new.
But nothing comes out of the blue in one day.
The fact that the PKK has been enjoying influence among Syrian Kurds was related to the internal dynamics of the PKK. This was not something encouraged by Syria until this past year. There were different groups within the Syrian Kurds and, in fact, the KDP enjoyed bigger influence among them. As Turkey was uneasy about the presence of Syrian Kurds within the PKK and thought that this was so because they were suffering in Syria, Turkey put pressure on Syria to improve their situation. When Davutoğlu went to Syria [in spring 2011], he asked that Kurds be released from prisons. But when relations became strained with Turkey, Syria took steps not to improve the situation of Kurds but to strengthen the PKK. Today, [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki is closer to Syria, while the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is defending the rights of the Syrian Kurds. So Syria took steps not only to give Turkey a headache but also to narrow the KDP’s zone of influence. Kurds close to the PKK were released from prisons; 30,000 Kurds close to the PKK got citizenship. [These sorts of things were not happening] last year. Syria tried to divert the control of the Kurds from the KDP toward the PKK.
But what came as a surprise was the fact that Barzani joined hands with the PYD.
When you look at the statements of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan], you can see very strong messages against Barzani. But what came more as a surprise is the fact that Barzani did not inform Ankara that he would take such a move.
I don’t use such expressions because they are being used in Turkey as part of anti-Kurdish rhetoric. Barzani probably thought he could pull this off. But I think he made a big miscalculation.
This has taken place at a time when relations between Ankara and Barzani have never been better.
That’s correct. I do not know how Barzani took that decision. Did he consult with third parties or take the decision on his own? I rather think he acted on his own. And I think Ankara is very annoyed by it. The most important issue between Iraq’s central administration and Barzani is the oil issue. I can’t believe the latest agreements were made with Chevron without Turkey’s guarantee to let the oil reach international markets despite al-Maliki’s objection. Actually, Barzani might be thinking of establishing an energy corridor via Latakia and therefore bypassing Turkey. But this is a very low probability. There are also Arabs in the north and they are supporting the Free Syrian Army which is stronger than the PKK. If the PYD allows room for the PKK, this might lead to Turkish cross-border operations.
What might be the other reasons that led Barzani to act in this fashion?
I can only speculate. As the KDP was losing ground in the north as Syria was strengthening the PKK, it might have tried to regain ground among Syrian Kurds via the Arbil agreement [under which the fragmented Syrian Kurdish movements, including the PYD, were united]. Barzani might have thought that he could not do this at the expense of the PKK and therefore entered a relationship with a group affiliated with the PKK [with the aim] of controlling and managing it while also increasing his legitimacy among the groups close to the PKK. But this does not legitimize the fact that it was done without informing Turkey. This shows that he thinks he is really strong. But I think he will review his stance.
What do you think Turkey will do now?
I think the issue of the transfer of energy sources to Turkey will be on the agenda. This is the most important trump card in the hands of Turkey. It will be conveyed at least that there could be counter moves for those unilaterally taken steps. But I don’t think things will come to that stage. Barzani, however, will be told about the consequences of instability in the north of Syria. A state of instability is a situation where anybody can do anything. If thePKK becomes very active [there] and starts hurting Turkey’s interests, [Syrian] groups that are close to Turkey could become mobilize as well. The Free Syrian Army has already stated that it could even fight the PKK [although] the priority right now is [fighting] the al-Assad administration.