ISTANBUL - Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani's announcement he plans to step down was greeted with jubilation in Turkey’s pro-government media. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Barzani, his once close ally, of betrayal for his decision to hold a September independence referendum.
“Ankara, whether or not it indicated clearly, would be clearly happy with the removal of Mr. Barzani as president and replaced with someone else, so that would be seen by a welcome development,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who established Turkey’s consulate in the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital, Irbil.
Ankara has been in the forefront of using its diplomatic and economic muscle to force the Iraqi Kurds to recant after voting overwhelming in favor of independence, which Turkey fears could incite its own large restive Kurdish minority.
But Ankara could yet pay a heavy price for Barzani’s ousting. “We have lost our most important ally in the region,” warned political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners, a New York analysis firm. Since the late 2000s, Erdogan developed a close political relationship with Barzani, facilitated by burgeoning trade and shared distrust of Baghdad's leadership.
Erdogan repeatedly accused Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki of pursuing policies against Iraq’s Sunni minority, a stance consistent with the Turkish president's tendency to present himself as a defender of Sunnis’ rights across the region. In one of many tit-for-tat insult exchanges between the leaders, Erdogan last year scolded al-Abadi, saying, “You are not my equal.”
But in a dramatic diplomatic reversal, Erdogan embraced Abadi in common cause over the threat of Iraqi Kurdish independence. Last week, the Turkish president hosted the Iraqi prime minister in Ankara to coordinate the latest efforts against the Iraqi Kurds. Despite the warm words exchanged by both leaders, analysts warn the newfound love affair, may be short lived. “Ankara doesn't seem to display a strategic rational in these issues,” warns analyst Yesilada. “The current policy of antagonizing Iraqi Kurds ignores the bigger threat of Iran completely dominating Iraqi politics,” he said.
Turkey and Iran are jockeying for influence in Iraq and Syria.
In June, Erdogan accused Tehran of embarking on “Persian expansionism.” Ankara cultivated close ties with Barzani and his Kurdish Regional Government, KRG, enabled Turkey to project its influence in Baghdad and counter Tehran’s growing power. Now, Erdogan has dropped rhetoric against Tehran and is working together with Baghdad to quell Iraqi Kurdish independence.
Diplomatic influence lost
But Erdogan’s turn against Barzani means the loss of an important diplomatic card, say observers.
“Ankara will have less say over Baghdad with a diminished influence over KRG because Ankara worked through KRG Kurdistan in Baghdad. This is a fact,” said Selcen. “In the mid and long term Ankara’s and Tehran interests will not overlap,” he said.
The cost to Ankara of undermining Barzani and his KDP Party is not only confined to diplomatic influence. The main beneficiary could be the Kurdish rebel group the PKK that is fighting for greater autonomy for Kurds in Turkey.
The PKK has many of its bases in the Iraqi Kurdish region. “The political arena is the more forthcoming for the PKK presence because the KDP was the strongest ally in Ankara’s fight against the PKK. I don’t know how that will continue from now on,” notes Selcen. “But the fight against the PKK has become an agenda for Baghdad and Ankara,” he said.
“Assuming in Iraqi Kurdistan, the PKK gains strength at the disadvantage of Barzani, I don’t see what Ankara can do but intervene one way or another,” warns Yesilada. On Oct.13 and for the first time in nine years, Turkish forces carried out a cross border military operation into Iraqi Kurdistan against the PKK. But analysts question whether Baghdad or Tehran would be agree to any major Turkish operation into Iraq against the PKK.
Base a point of contention
The presence of a Turkish military base in the Iraqi town of Bashiqa remains a major point of contention with Baghdad, which has repeatedly called for its removal.
With the Iraqi Kurdistan region facing an economic crisis and political turmoil under ongoing pressure from Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara, the region could yet face more instability.
“It's true the KRG runs the risk of an imminent implosion and the first test (is) upcoming elections in Iraq, which should be held March 2018,” notes former diplomat Selcen. Analysts say the PKK would likely benefit from any chaos. “Realistically speaking, in the near term, we might witness a readjustment by Ankara toward the Kurds, in particular. And as far I can see, the rhetoric of Ankara, through various actors, the prime minister and foreign minister, is a bit toned down since the referendum,” said Selcen.