Yesterday in Baghdad,Turkish leaders met with Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, for the first time in four years.
Ankara’s decision to meet with Barzani indicates its recognition that preventing the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) from launching attacks along the Turkish-Iraqi border will prove impossible without the support of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. Ankara had previously refused to meet with President Barzani to avoid legitimizing his government and because of concerns that it is supporting the PKK and may be selling weapons to the separatist group.
Today’s meeting comes on the heels of the Turkish parliament’s decision last week to reauthorize military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq and amidst a recent escalation of hostilities. A battle on October 4 killed 15 Turkish soldiers and 23 PKK rebels.
Whether today’s talks will lead to closer collaboration between Turkey and the KRG remains unclear. The KRG vociferously condemned the recent attacks and claims to be taking steps to prevent the PKK from operating within its territory.
Analysts differ, however, as to whether the KRG truly possesses the requisite will and capacity to challenge the PKK. Some commentators have noted that President Barzani’s government has an interest in preventing PKK attacks because they legitimize Turkish incursions into its land, threaten its stability, and prevent it from exercising sovereign control over its territory. KRG spokesman Jamal Abdullah has made this point in the past.
On the other hand, the KRG is a fledgling political entity struggling to survive in a very unstable domestic and international political context. Devoting immense military, political, and economic resources to take on the PKK, a fellow Kurdish group whose separatist ambitions it likely sympathizes with and which it refuses to brand a terrorist organization, is not its first priority. Moreover, the PKK provides the KRG with a valuable bargaining chip: the Turkish government would not meet with the KRG at all if it were not for the threat that the PKK poses.
Beneath the surface of yesterday’s talks lies a deeper layer of conflicting interests between Turkey and the KRG. Turkey has been fighting a PKK-led Kurdish separatist movement for more than twenty years. The “Kurdish issue” has dominated Turkish domestic politics and stymied its efforts to join the European Union for much of that time. The last thing that Turkey’s political leadership wants is a quasi-independent Kurdistan on its southeastern border.
It is possible, however, that Turkey would be willing to extend greater levels of recognition in exchange for security. And the fact that the two sides are talking at the highest levels indicates that there may be room for cooperation.