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Iraqi Kurdish Region President, Turkish Officials Meet, Discuss Syria

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani shake hands before their meeting in Istanbul, April 19, 2012.

The head of the Iraqi Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, is visiting Turkey in a deepening of relations built on trade and growing shared regional interests. But the unrest in Syria poses both a challenge and opportunity for the two parties.

The Iraqi Kurdistan regional President Masoud Barzani started his two-day visit Thursday by meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. One of the key topics of talks is reported to be the crisis in neighboring Syria.

Sinan Ulgen is a former senior Turkish diplomat who now heads the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. He said Ankara has deep concern about the role Kurds will play if the Syrian regime falls to government opponents.

"In a post-Assad era, if the Syrian Kurds, possibly with the support of the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, want to obtain a degree of autonomy - if not to say independence, that can fuel secessionist tendency of other Kurds in the region," Ulgen said. "That is certainly a risk. But Barzani, before coming to Turkey, he also made a number of statements to trying to assuage those fears."

People stand in front of a Kurdish flag during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and a celebration of Nowruz held by Qamishli's Kurdish community, March 21, 2012.
People stand in front of a Kurdish flag during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and a celebration of Nowruz held by Qamishli's Kurdish community, March 21, 2012.

International relations expert Soli Ozel of the Turkish newspaper Haberturk said with Syrian Kurds making up a large part of the rebel group PKK, the Syrian crisis poses a dilemma to Ankara. The largest Kurdish population lives in Turkey and for more than three decades the PKK has been fighting the Turkish state for greater rights.

"You see Turkey, on one hand, does not want Damascus's grip to weaken in order to keep the Kurds in place. On the other hand, it wants Assad regime to go. It is very difficult act," said Ozel.

Still, the Turkish government is rolling out the red carpet for the Iraqi Kurdish leader. With a meeting scheduled Friday with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, the Barzani visit is being described in the Turkish media as akin to an official state visit by a leader of a country.

In the past few years, relations have dramatically improved between the Turkish government and the Iraqi Kurdish leader.

Cengiz Aktar, professor of International relations at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, said the warm reception is an indication of the importance to Ankara of Barzani.

"Some time ago he was considered as a local bandit. Now he is considered as a statesman," said Aktar. "The main tie is economic, and Turkish industrialists and tradesmen are very busy and very active. It's very important, it's very useful, it's very healthy and this is how relations are developing. And there is so much trust on especially on Masoud Barzani. The Turkish government is trying to subcontract the solution of its own Kurdish problem to him."

Barzani is expected to discuss steps to end the PKK insurgency against Turkey. He has resisted calls by Ankara to move against PKK bases in northern Iraq. The Iraqi Kurdish leader is reported to be planning to call for a PKK cease-fire in the coming weeks.

But it is a reciprocal relationship.

Turkish authorities are offering strong support to Barzani in his political struggle with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over the distribution of power and control of resources. Former Turkish envoy Ulgen said common interests are forging a strong relationship.

"This is a grand equation. And the more Turkey and Iraq Kurdish leadership acquire common points of convergence, the more confidence will emerge on the two sides. We have already seen signs of that: the fact that they now see eye-to-eye on the future of Iraq and trying to push back against Maliki," said Ulgen. "It is also helping to discuss more constructively the role Syrian Kurds can play in the future of Syria."

Several Syrian Kurdish opposition groups are using the Iraqi Kurdish region as a place to meet. Analysts say Ankara may well be looking to Barzani as a moderating force on their demands and to persuade them to unit behind the main opposition Syrian National Council.