A Fine Balance: Can Barzani Help Syrian Kurds? PDF Print E-mail

By: Ali Kurdistani posted on Monday, Apr 9, 2012

Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, has emerged as a key broker among

Syrian Kurds in opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad.


Barzani spoke at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on April 5, saying that with regard to the Syrian Kurds, "We are ready to support them, but not with military support or providing ammunition. It could be moral support, political support, financial support. And we will use our influence to help solve their problems."

That Barzani stopped short of a more active role in regime change in Syria reflects the complexities of the Iraqi Kurdish leadership’s predicament in managing the pressures and opportunities of dealing with both Baghdad and Ankara, while trying to assist Kurds in Syria.

Barzani explained his position directly to a meeting of the Syrian Kurdish National Council (SKNC) in December 2011, a month after its formation. He told them, “You must play your role very carefully and ensure that democratic values and Kurdish rights are recognized and guaranteed in the Syrian Constitution. I call on you to work closely with those both inside and outside the country who are prepared to meet your demands.”

Although the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been both a model and inspiration for Kurdish national rights, the strategy of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is also constrained by its own interests and the regional relationships among Iraq, Iran and Turkey. With regard to Syria, the Kurdistan Region does not have official diplomatic and political ties with Damascus, and therefore little leverage with the Assad government. If the KRG directly supports Kurdish opposition in Syria, it has nothing to lose with Damascus. It was only in the past that Syria was important for the Iraqi Kurdish movement, three decades ago.

After the SKNC meeting, the KRG hosted another conference in January in Erbil, the KRG's capital, where the Syrian Kurds in exile and the Syrian opposition groups could discuss their issues freely.

Iraqi Kurdish leadership advised and encouraged the SKNC to reach an agreement with other Syrian opposition groups. "It would be good for them to enter into talks and negotiations so they can reach an agreement with the other groups of the opposition," said Barzani in Washington on April 5.

The KRG has encouraged Syrian Kurdish opposition groups to negotiate and join other Syrian opposition groups after realizing the extent of Ankara`s influence on the Syrian National Council, but the KRG leadership, like the Syrian Kurdish opposition groups, has concerns about the SNC`s agenda for the post-Assad government.

After realizing the Iraqi Kurdish leadership's concerns and influence over the SKNC, according to Kurdish press, Burhan Ghalioun, the head of the SNC, made an unannounced visit to Erbil in January 2012. Ghalioun met with President Barzani and explained his views on Kurdish rights, expressing his support to solve the Kurdish problem in Syria. On that trip, Abdulhakim Bashar, the head of the SKNC, arrived in Erbil and the KRG facilitated a meeting between the two leaders. That meeting resulted in the SNC agreeing to recognize Kurdish rights in a draft constitution and to solve the Kurdish problem according to international law.

However, the SNC did not agree on other points related to the Kurdish problem in Syria. Due to Turkish and other Sunni states' influence in the region, Ankara does not want another version of the KRG in Syria. Ankara is still encouraging the SKNC to merge with the SNC, an idea Washington supports as well. At the first Friends of Syria conference in Tunisia in February, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encouraged both councils to merge, saying that the SNC should represent all the different ethnics of Syria.

But due to the disagreements between both councils over the Kurdish problem and rights in Syria, the two groups are still not likely to merge. In the recent meeting in Istanbul [March 27, 2012], the Syrian Kurdish opposition representatives walked out, and the Syrian Kurdish opposition was not invited and did not attend the second Friends of Syria conference in April, in which many countries in the world recognized the SNC as the legitimate representative of Syrian people.

At an April 3 press conference in Erbil, the SKNC explained their absence, and that the SNC refused to recognize and accept Kurdish demands in Syria. They also expressed their concerns over the SNC's Arab agenda.

The main concern of Kurdish leadership over Syria is its relations with Turkey. Ankara`s influence on the SNC is substantial, and it will be difficult for the KRG to maintain a stance contrary to the Turkish position in Syria, because that would damage Erbil-Ankara relations. On April 5, Nechirvan Barzani was sworn into office as PM of the KRG, and both Turkish PM Erdogan and the Turkish foreign minister congratulated him and invited him to visit Ankara. Part of that meeting between the Turkish government and the KRG in Ankara will likely address the recent developments in Syria.

Tehran is also closely monitoring how Iraqi Kurdish leadership positions itself on Syria, and is also against any kind of support for the opposition of Assad`s regime. Tehran fears encouraging the Kurds in Iran and does not want to see a version of the KRG in Syria either.

The current government in Baghdad is also against any kind of KRG relations with the Syrian Kurdish opposition, but due to other issues between Erbil and Baghdad, Syria won’t become a main issue of conflict between the two.

Ali Kurdistani is an Iraqi Kurdistan-based political analyst.




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