Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, is in Turkey today and tomorrow where he is getting the royal treatment in meetings with Erdoğan, Davutoğlu, and Gül. Partly this is a dig at Nouri al-Maliki, since Barzani will take the opportunity while in Turkey to meet with renegade Iraqi VP Tariq al-Hashemi and decry the Maliki government’s treatment of Iraq’s Sunnis, a cause near and dear to Erdoğan’s heart. Turkey has been keeping a wary eye on the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, and Barzani’s visit is a chance to express some Sunni solidarity while also implicitly putting some more pressure on Iran.
The main theme of the visit though is Erdoğan’s attempt to continue marginalizing Turkey’s Kurds. From Erdoğan’s perspective, he is intent on driving a wedge between the KRG and Turkish Kurds for two reasons. First, he wants Barzani’s help fighting the PKK, and he believes that this will be easier to do if there is a sense of Iraqi Kurdish identity separate from Turkish Kurdish identity. Iraqi Kurdistan’s relationship with the PKK is not a good one, and Barzani has made improving relations with Turkey a top priority and has accordingly supported Ankara in its efforts to root out the PKK from the Iraq-Turkey border region. The more that Barzani and Iraqi Kurdistan view themselves as distinct from Diyarkabır, the more they will be willing to distance themselves from the PKK and to shut down PKK supply lines.
Second, Erdoğan wants to anoint Barzani as the global Kurdish spokesman in an effort to marginalize Turkey’s Kurds and take away their independent voice. By treating Barzani as an important visiting head of state, Turkey sends the message that Kurdistan already exists without Turkish Kurds, who then have no choice but to drop their dreams of separation or even autonomy and accept their status as Turks. Turning the Kurdish problem into a regional one rather than a national one holds advantages for Turkey because it increases the chances of Turkey’s Kurds being left out of any solution, and as Murat Yetkin points out in Hurriyet, the BDP has had more difficulty distancing itself from the PKK than the Iraqi Kurds have. Improving ties with the KRG and securing Barzani in his corner is a win-win for Erdoğan, which is why he is rolling out the red carpet over the next two days. By developing closer ties with Iraqi Kurdistan, Erdoğan is able to deny his own Kurds a possible influential champion and keep them right where he wants them.