Jan 18, 2012

Eager for new alliances, Assad's opponents look to Iraqi Kurdistan

Samir Geagea received Hero's welcome in Arbil's predominately Christan district of Ankawa. In the picture, Geagea crosses in front of a piece of writing which has written "the people of Ankawa welcomes Kurdistan's beloved guest    Dr. Samir Geagea".
Lately, Iraqi Kurdistan has seen a surge in political activity, from the visit of Burhan Ghalioun, chairman of the Syrian National Council (SNC), to Walid Jumblatt, a prominent Lebanese Druze leader, to Samir Geagea, from the Lebanese opposition bloc, to Turkey's Deputy Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu.
For some, the stream of political leaders to Kurdistan might be normal, but lately all political leaders who have visited Kurdistan are in one way or another linked to Syria. Those who have visited Kurdistan are anti-Syria Lebanese leaders, from the Syrian opposition or from Turkey, an important player in the Syrian crisis. According to information I acquired from sources close to Massoud Barzani's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in the group's meetings with the above people, Barzani has been discussing Syria
Ghalioun's meeting with Barzani, which took place two weeks ago, was mostly about guarantees from the SNC for Kurds in Syria, which was made in return for an agreement in which the Kurdish National Council, which represents most Kurdish parties in Syria, will join the SNC.
Syrian Kurds have some demands which they tie to membership in the SNC, including the right to study in Kurdish in predominately Kurdish cities and the right to limited regional autonomy. Ghalioun promised to discuss the conditions with other members of the SNC.
Yet some Kurds still haven't joined the demonstrations -- which may suggest they belong to pro-Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) parties. According to some Kurdish journalists who visited senior PKK leader Murat Karayılan last August, the PKK doesn't want Bashar al-Assad to be toppled. The PKK has historical ties with the Syrian regime, and they used to set up camp in Syrian territory prior to the imprisonment of PKK leader and founder Abdullah Öcalan in 1999.
Lebanese Druze leader Jumblatt, who claims to have a neutral stance regarding Syria, met with Barzani in mid-December. Jumblatt used to be a diehard opponent of Assad. Jumblatt, who is of Kurdish origin, discussed with Barzani the idea of withdrawing his party from the Lebanese government if need be.
Prominent Lebanese politician Geagea's meeting with Barzani was also motivated by the Syrian crisis. According to unconfirmed information, Barzani, who himself has strong ties with many Lebanese parties, is trying to convince Jumblatt to negotiate with Geagea's opposition party to topple Lebanon's current government, which is dominated by Hezbollah. Turkey has had a harsh stance on the Syrian regime since the start of the uprising and is believed to have asked Barzani, a strong ally of Turkey, to use his ties with Lebanese parties to topple any pro-Assad government in Lebanon.
Deputy Foreign Minister Sinirlioğlu paid a visit to the Iraqi city of Arbil to discuss the development of closer ties with Barzani.
In addition, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), which has strong ties with Iran, Turkey and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, is mediating between Iran and the Syrian Brotherhood, because the Syrian Brotherhood knows if Iran continues to support Assad, there will be little hope of toppling the regime without foreign intervention. Again, Turkey, specifically Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, personally asked Selahaddin Bahaddin, head of the KIU, to use the group's own privileged position to open negotiations between Iran and the Syrian   Brotherhood. For this, Bahaddin paid a visit to İstanbul to see the leaders of the Syrian Brotherhood and then visited Tehran. Moreover, later, Bahaddin flew to Sudan to see Iran's friends, Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who both have a good relationship with Iran and an Islamist background. What they discussed is not yet known. Furthermore, a week ago, Bahaddin met with a delegation from the Kurdish National Council, according to a source close to the KIU; Bahaddin is trying to mediate between Syrian Kurds and the Brotherhood as well. The Syrian Kurds are striving to get guarantees from the opposition regarding Kurds amid the growing opportunity of toppling Assad's regime.
Iraqi Kurdistan, with its strategic geo-political location between Syria, Turkey and Iran, is becoming a vital place for political activity between different actors playing a role in the Syrian crisis. Kurds are trying to keep up good relations with Middle Eastern giants Iran and Turkey. Barzani, who used to have good ties with Assad's regime, seemingly turned toward the opposition with the growing opportunity of the uprising's success in Syria.

*Abdulla Hawez is a freelance journalist based in Iraqi Kurdistan. Follow him: @abdullahawez

This article has first appeared on Today's Zaman:

This article has re-published under my permission on DIMPOOL, Policy center:

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