Report: Erdogan, Iraqi Kurdish Leader Discuss Rival to Syrian Kurds in Islamic State War

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - FEBRUARY 26: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and President of Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) Masoud Barzani (L) shake hands during their meeting at Mabeyn Palace in Istanbul, Turkey on February 26, 2017. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed the war against the Islamic State and a plan to curb Syrian Kurdish influence with the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) Masoud Barzani over the weekend. The chat was the second of its kind in a week, a sign the Turkey is looking to fortify its alliance with the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga.

The Turkish state outlet Anadolu Agency reported that Barzani and Erdogan met for an hour to discuss, among other things, “economic ties” and the struggle against the Islamic State in northern Mosul, Iraq, the terrorist group’s regional capital in the nation. Hurriyet, a Turkish newspaper, cited sources who claimed that the two additionally sought to find new avenues for cooperation in Syria.

Turkey, Hurriyet claims, is seeking to expand the reach of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga into Syria. “With the help of Barzani and Turkey, the Rojava Peshmergas were formed by the Syrian Kurdish National Assembly,” the newspaper explains. Hurriyet adds that the Syrian Kurdish militias governed by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) have expressed concern about Iraqi Kurdish groups usurping their territory and blocked 7,000 Peshmerga fighters from entering the area.

Barzani’s meeting with Erdogan followed a series of similar encounters with parties of the fight against ISIS in Syria. On Monday, Barzani reportedly met with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim for another round of conversation regarding the eradication of the Islamic State. While that meeting also revolved around the fight against the Islamic State, the outlet Kurdistan24 reports that Kurdish officials told reporters Barzani “demanded from Yildirim the release of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP] Co-leader Selahattin Demirtas and a dozen other lawmakers imprisoned since November 2016.”

Demirtas was arrested in November, along with HDP co-chair Figen Yüksekdağ, and charged with “aiding terrorism” for opposing Erdogan. He has been held in isolation and members of the HDP have protested that he has been subjected to “torture” as he awaits his trial. Demirtas has publicly accused Erdogan of attempting to build a “caliphate” and compared his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the Islamic State.

Barzani’s KRG government has notoriously struggled to maintain amicable relations with the PYD and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PYD cooperates with the PKK, although the PKK is a U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist group. The PYD, like the Peshmerga, also cooperate with the United States. Unlike the PYD, the Peshmerga have opposed the presence of the PKK in Iraq and repeatedly demanded they leave Peshmerga-controlled areas.

Barzani himself has said the PYD’s militias and the PKK “are exactly one and the same thing,” dismissing U.S. cooperation with the PYD because “You know the top priority for us and the Americans is the fight against [ISIL], so they might turn a blind eye.” And the KRG has not been hesitant to warn the PKK that they may be in the Peshmerga’s line of fire should they remain in Iraq. “Under the present circumstances, the presence of PKK forces in Sinjar will only add to instability in the area and nothing more,” Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, the president’s nephew, said in December, adding that it was possible for the Peshmerga to act to remove the PKK.

The PYD has nonetheless on occasion attempted to reach out to the KRG, as both groups seek to found an independent Kurdistan, though these attempts have failed.

While the Turkish part of Barzani’s tour has focused on the war against the Islamic State, the KRG president made another important date on the topic of Kurdish independence: a meeting with American Vice President Mike Pence on February 18. While the White House emphasized Vice President Pence’s “support for a unified, federal, and democratic Iraq,” Barzani senior adviser Hemin Hawrami told the Kurdish outlet Rudaw that Kurdish independence “was seriously discussed.”


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