ANKARA: Turkey has sent a clear signal of its intentions to challenge France’s ambitions in the region by holding meetings with the Iraqi Kurdish leader Nechirvan Barzani on Sept. 4.
The timing of Barzani’s visit was telling, just two days after French President Emmanuel Macron visited Baghdad to show his support for Iraqi sovereignty. Turkey and France are becoming regional rivals in their diverging moves in the Eastern Mediterranean and the battle for offshore gas rights.
Barzani, the president of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) led a delegation for a series of meetings.
“Both sides stressed the desire to develop relations between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey especially in enhancing trade volume and joint economic coordination. They voiced the significance of Turkish investment across various sectors in the Kurdistan Region,” the Kurdistan Region Presidency said on Friday.
The oil deal between KRG and Turkey allowing exports to the Turkish market has triggered conflict between Baghdad and Erbil over oil revenue‐sharing mechanisms.
According to Iraqi Kurdish media, Barzani conveyed the Iraqi prime minister’s message to Erdogan requesting the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Iraq and sharing the details of a bilateral oil deal with Baghdad. Ankara has not commented on the outcome of the visit.
Samuel Ramani, a Middle East analyst at the University of Oxford, thinks that Turkey’s relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan is independent from its military hostilities toward Syrian Kurds and also from the broader Turkey-Iraq relationship.
“Engagement between Barzani and Turkey is not overly surprising. The important factor is France. France under Macron has tried to reprise its role as an arbiter between Iraq and KRG. Paris sought to capitalize on Turkey’s recent cross-border strikes in Iraq, which were poorly received by Baghdad and viewed as a violation of sovereignty, as an opportunity to advance this historic agenda,” he told Arab News.
Turkey’s relationship with Iraqi Kurdistan is independent from its military hostilities toward Syrian Kurds and also from the broader Turkey-Iraq relationship.
Samuel Ramani, Analyst at the University of Oxford
According to Ramani, France hoped that diplomatic engagement — with three separate meetings between Iraqi and French officials this month — would bring the KRG and Iraq into its fold and further away from Turkey.
“But the KRG has long prized its foreign policy independence, balancing between various actors. The KRG praised Qassem Soleimani after his death and cultivating ties with Iran, as well as Israel, and is now emulating its Israel-Iran balancing strategy with France and Turkey,” he said.
However, Barzani’s visit aroused criticism from the Kurdish community in Turkey for focusing on strengthening trade relations rather than contributing to the settlement of the country’s longstanding Kurdish issue.
Ankara launched a cross-border operation to northern Iraq in mid-June against the hideouts of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which infuriated Baghdad, while Barzani was recently threatened by the PKK due to his relations with Ankara.
Abdulla Hawez, an independent researcher from Erbil, said: “The visit appears to have been planned abruptly following Macron's visit; it is a clear message from Erdogan that Iraqi Kurdish leaders will stay within his orbit and that they cannot be used by France in its regional feud against Turkey.”
Bekir Aydogan, a Turkish expert on Iraqi Kurdistan, agreed.
“Considering French President Macron’s Baghdad meeting with Iraqi officials, including Barzani, and Macron’s emphasis on Iraq’s sovereignty during the visit, it is not far-fetched to say that Turkey, by hosting Barzani in Ankara, wanted to remind France of its close relations with the KRG,” he said.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry also drew harsh criticism for hiding the Kurdish flag in social media posts about the meeting in order to satisfy government’s nationalistic coalition partner MHP.
While the photographs shared by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Twitter, featuring only Turkish and Iraqi flags, pictures posted by Barzani showed a Kurdish flag as well as.
For Aydogan, Barzani’s close ties with Ankara and his opposition to PKK’s presence in KRG indicate that Turkey’s hold on KRG is strong.
“Despite the anti-Kurdish sentiment in Turkish domestic policy, as seen in the debates over the presence of the official KRG flag during the meeting, this visit reminded Ankara that Iraqi Kurdistan Region is still an indispensable actor in the region,” he said.