x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Turkey seeks help of foe in anti-rebel strategy

Ankara wants Barzani to declare PKK a militant body, deport its members and close down affiliated organisations in northern Iraq.

ISTANBUL // In an effort to strengthen co-operation against Kurdish rebels, Turkey took up direct negotiations yesterday with the leader of the Kurdish authority of northern Iraq for the first time since 2004, sending a delegation to Baghdad to meet Massud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdish administration and until very recently the man everybody in Ankara loved to hate.

A Turkish government delegation, headed by Murat Ozcelik, Turkey's special Iraq envoy, met Mr Barzani in Baghdad's Green Zone, Turkish television channels reported. There was no word on the outcome of the talks. The Turkish delegation was also to meet Nouri al Maliki, Iraq's prime minister. The meeting with Mr Barzani marked a new stage in a political turnaround for Ankara that began with a decision by Turkey's national security council in April. The council, made up of the president, the government and military leaders, said Turkey would hold consultations "with all Iraqi groups and institutions". Shortly afterwards, Ahmet Davutoglu, the main foreign policy adviser to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, met Nechirvan Barzani, Mr Barzani's nephew and the man who is also the prime minister of the Kurdish region, in Baghdad.

Ankara wants Mr Barzani to put pressure on the Turkish-Kurdish rebel group Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, whose fighters have launched an increasing number of attacks in Turkey from camps in northern Iraq. The PKK, which took up arms against Ankara in 1984, is fighting for more autonomy for Turkey's Kurds, in a war that has killed more than 40,000 people. Ankara says the PKK can hide and buy weapons in northern Iraq and has complained that the Iraqi authorities and US troops in Iraq are not doing enough to counter the PKK.

"Barzani cannot end the Kurdish conflict for Turkey, but he can cut the logistics for the PKK and he can help to decrease cross-border raids by the PKK by improved border security," said Bayram Sinkaya, an Iraq expert at the Centre for Eurasian Strategic Studies, or Asam, a think tank in Ankara. For much of the past several years, Turkish politicians accused Mr Barzani of raising tensions in the region and of protecting members of the PKK. Only last year, Mr Barzani caused a storm of protests in Ankara by warning that if Turkey was to meddle in decisions about the future of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by Iraq's Kurds, the Kurds themselves would stir up unrest in Diyarbakir, Turkey's main Kurdish city. Mr Erdogan accused Mr Barzani of "overstepping his line", while opposition leader Deniz Baykal said Mr Barzani was acting against "Turkey's territorial integrity and national sovereignty". In October last year, Mr Erdogan said Mr Barzani was "aiding and abetting" the PKK.

The last time an official Turkish delegation held talks with Mr Barzani was in 2004, one year after the US invasion of Iraq, the Turkish news channel NTV reported. Before the cold spell in their relations, Ankara and the Iraqi Kurdish leader were in close contact for much of the 1990s, when both Mr Barzani and the other main Kurdish leader in the region, Jalal Talabani, the Iraq's president, were given Turkish passports to be able to travel abroad.

But as much of Iraq descended into chaos after the US invasion, Ankara became increasingly nervous about the possible creation of an independent Kurdish state in the north, a development that Turkey fears may fan unrest among the Kurdish population in Turkey itself. One consequence was Ankara's refusal to have direct contacts with Mr Barzani as Ankara did not want to do anything that would lend credibility to Mr Barzani's administration. "As Turkey, Barzani cannot be our interlocutor," Mr Erdogan said in October last year.

Since then, the government and the military have reached a consensus that talks with Mr Barzani might bring advantages, said Mr Sinkaya of Asam. "For the co-operation against terrorism and also for trade interests, it is necessary to talk to Barzani." In concrete terms, the Turkish delegation was to call on Mr Barzani to declare officially the PKK a militant organisation, something the Kurdish leader has avoided so far, NTV reported. In addition, Turkey wants Mr Barzani's administration to deport PKK members to Turkey and to close down organisations in northern Iraq that are connected to the PKK.

On Oct 3, PKK rebels attacked a Turkish army outpost in the village of Aktutun near the border between Turkey and Iraq, and killed 17 soldiers before returning to their camps in Iraq. Since then, the Turkish air force has attacked suspected PKK installations in Iraq. Last week, parliament in Ankara extended for another year a mandate for cross-border operations by the military. More radical measures, such as the creation of a permanent Turkish "security zone" inside Iraq, seem to be off the table for now. Mr Erdogan said such a buffer zone was "unnecessary", and newspapers reported that the military leadership in Ankara had expressed doubts whether the United States and Iraq would agree to such a plan.

But not everyone in Ankara is happy with the new openness towards Mr Barzani. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the right-wing National Movement Party, or MHP, said Mr Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was helping extremism by talking to Mr Barzani. "It has become clear: Barzani is the brain of terrorism, [the PKK headquarters in the northern Iraqi mountain range of] Kandil is the government, the separatists are the supporters, and the AKP is the guide showing them around," Mr Bahceli said during a party meeting.

tseibert@thenational.ae