In a rare recognition of Kurdish political autonomy, the Turkish government hoisted a Kurdish flag during Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani's visit to Turkey on Feb. 26-27. Over the past two days, Barzani has attended several talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmet Yildiz, Energy Minister Berat Albayrak and National Intelligence Organization chief Hakan Fidan. The flurry of meetings came less than a week after Barzani met with Yildirim on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 19.
A number of factors are driving Turkey's urgency in its dealings with the Kurdish president. Having wrapped up its military operation in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, the Turkish government is now preparing to drive a wedge between the Kurdish cantons of Afrin, Kobani and Cizre ahead of the impending U.S.-led offensive against Raqqa. Specifically, Ankara hopes to weaken and split the areas currently held by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) while preventing the participation of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in the Raqqa operation. To this end, Turkey is working to facilitate the movement of the 7,000-strong Rojava peshmerga force into areas of Syria where the PYD and YPG are concentrated, further dividing the Kurdish landscape. (Ankara considers the Rojava peshmerga, made up of Syrian Kurdish fighters backed by Barzani and trained by Turkish troops at northern Iraq's Bashiqa camp, to be a friendly Kurdish force.) That said, the PYD and YPG have countered attempts by the Turkish government and Barzani to encroach on their turf before.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, the international coalition combating the Islamic State is in the midst of an attempt to rout the group from western Mosul. As the operation progresses, Turkey will count on Barzani's cooperation in removing Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters from the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar. Ankara has also voiced concerns over the presence of Shiite Popular Mobilization forces in Tal Afar, a town just west of Mosul. After all, Turkey has positioned itself as the protector of the region's Turkmen (and more broadly, Sunni) communities from Shiite aggression as it works to counter the influence of its longtime rival, Iran, in northern Iraq. If Turkey cannot rely on the help of Barzani's peshmerga, it may resort to deploying its own military forces to address these threats.
Nevertheless, Turkey's demands of Barzani will put the Kurdish leader in an awkward position. Barzani and Erdogan's clans have shared close business and political ties for years, but the former is facing considerable dissent in the KRG and cannot afford to be portrayed as the Turkish government's puppet — especially as Ankara steps up its military role in the region. This explains, in part, why Barzani also met with ousted Mardin Co-Mayor Ahmet Turk and Agri Co-Mayor Sirri Sakik, both of whom belong to Turkey's pro-Kurd Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), during his recent trip to Turkey. By publicly calling on the Turkish government to ease its crackdowns on the HDP, Barzani is trying to preserve his own credibility as a champion of Kurdish interests.
In the weeks ahead, it will be important to watch for signs of whether the negotiation between the Turkish government and KRG is bearing fruit. Should Ankara make conciliatory moves toward the HDP or ramp up its economic aid to the KRG to secure Barzani's support, it could signal a stronger partnership ahead. The same would be true if Turkish and Iraqi peshmerga forces step up their own operations against PKK fighters in northern Iraq. However, even if Barzani and Ankara reach a deal to move Rojava peshmerga through KRG and Turkish territory to Syria, the force is likely to meet stiff resistance from the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include a large YPG contingent. And should Barzani fail to meet Ankara's expectations of support, any signs of unilateral movements by the Turkish military in northern Iraq will bear close watching as the Mosul operation advances.