Conflicting reports after Barzani meets Erdogan, Turkish officials

KRG President Massoud Barzani meets with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 26 January 2017, (c) AA/Kayhan Ozer

Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 26 February and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim the day after. While in Ankara, he also met with dismissed former mayor of Mardin Ahmet Turk and Agri mayor Sirri Sakik – both from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Attending the first meeting together with Erdogan were also Turkey Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) head Hakan Fidan and Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmet Yildiz. According to the KRG statement, the leaders discussed economic relations between Turkey and KRG – both sides currently facing economic troubles – and the military operation in Mosul as well as developments in Syria.

The fight against the Islamic State (IS) and the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq’s Sinjar region were also up for discussion, sources said. The spokesperson of Turkish President Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, said ahead of the meeting that Barzani and Turkey stand together in the fight against IS and PKK.

Sources said Barzani and Turkish officials also discussed the presence of Turkish soldiers in Bashiqa in the Mosul District of the Ninawa Governorate in northern Iraq. The troops have the permission of the KRG but no authorisation from Baghdad, which has led to tension between Turkey and the central Iraqi government. Turkey says it is training Peshmerga forces in the area and defending the country’s sovereignty against perceived threats from the PKK presence in Sinjar.

According to a Turkish official who spoke to Hurriyet on the condition of anonymity before the meetings, the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s ‘Rojava Peshmerga’, who are trained by Ankara and seen as “friendly elements” would also be on the agenda, however this was not commented on by other side following meetings.

As the meetings were ongoing, Anas al-Abdah, the head of the Turkey-backed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, is reported to have said that the ‘Rojava Peshmergas’ would be included in the Euphrates Shield operation as a part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is seen as ‘Rojava’s army’ has rejected a separate fighting force in the region and warned that it would lead to ‘Kurdish in-fighting’ if the Peshmerga force were deployed in northern Syria outside the YPG’s umbrella.

Conflicting reports have also emerged about what was discussed in meetings, with some news outlets suggesting Massoud Barzani asked Erdogan to get HDP deputies and co-leader Selahattin Demirtas released from prison, to enable a return to peace talks. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus rejected these claims in a press briefing on Monday, saying “only the fight against terrorism and regional issues were discussed.”

Ahmet Turk meanwhile, following his meeting with Barzani, said “President Massoud Barzani is an important actor for the Kurds. President Barzani is a leader of the Kurds and I believe he will do his utmost for the [Kurdish] peace process.”

Writing in Al-Monitor, journalist Amberin Zaman reported, “The pro-government Turkish media has been hinting for some time that when endowed with full executive powers, Erdogan will reach out the Kurds again and Barzani may play a part.”

Commentators have speculated that this is a ploy by the government to divide and weaken the Kurdish camp in Turkey – which is voting against the constitutional reform – ahead of April’s referendum. The speculation also been evaluated as a way for Barzani to “preserve his credibility as a champion of Kurdish interests” analysis firm Stratfor has reported.

The hoisting of the Kurdistan Regional Government flag alongside the Turkish flag – for the first time – during Barzani’s visit has also been viewed from a similar perspective. But the move has caused controversy amongst Turkey’s nationalist circles who are supporting the government reform. Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli has condemned the act as “scandalous” and said his party’s patience was “over”. This has already led to premature speculation of a break between the MHP and ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of the referendum.

Barzani’s visit has been viewed as a part of the diplomatic traffic currently ongoing in the region alongside the military conflict in Iraq and Syria. Developments in al-Bab region and the imminent unveiling of the US administration’s future plans in relation to capturing Raqqa will mean a new phase according to commentators.