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April 22, 2012, Sunday

Can Barzani be a mediator?

No doubt Iraqi Kurdistan is the most peaceful and stable part of Iraq. As such it can be described as an island of stability in a region where conflicts among regional actors have recently been spreading.

Yet the peace and stability of Iraqi Kurdistan is fragile, too. It is vulnerable to the presence and activities of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the north of the country.

With spring here, the PKK's cross-border operations are expected to increase, following a winter break, with assaults on targets in Turkey.

Security forces will certainly respond to any new wave of terrorist activities in Turkey. As the tension increases between Turkey and Syria, the former cannot afford to appear weak vis-à-vis the PKK. Furthermore, with rising tension in the region, nationalist public reactions against Kurds within Turkey cannot be ruled out. All these will have destabilizing effects on the Iraqi Kurdish region.

Iraqi Kurds now have a golden opportunity to improve relations with Turkey. The only irritant between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdish administration is the PKK. Once the PKK stops being a source of quarrels, the two sides will emerge as natural allies and partners in regional politics and further improve their economic cooperation.

This is recognized as such by the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani, who was on an official visit to Turkey last week. The way in which he was received is indicative of the potential for a full-fledged partnership.

To move in this direction Barzani seems willing to get rid of the PKK problem. I do not expect an open confrontation between Barzani and the PKK. This will be unacceptable to the Kurds of the region as a whole. But what I see is that Barzani has increasingly regarded the PKK as a burden for the future of Iraqi Kurds. And he is certainly right to see it this way.

The PKK concentrated its activities in camps in northern Iraq after being expelled from Syria in 1998. Exploiting the turmoil and lack of authority in the region, it turned Iraqi Kurdistan into a safe haven for its recruitment and training activities. For some time now the Kurdish administration has established itself in Iraqi Kurdistan, asserting authority and sovereignty. It is thus hard to explain the presence of a group described by the US and the EU as a terrorist organization within the territory the Kurdish administration claims is controlled by the regional government in Arbil.

Stopping the activities and removing the presence of the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan is a mission related to the statehood of the KRG in northern Iraq if it does not want its territory to be seen by its neighbors as a “no man's land” that everyone is free to intervene in.

I think it is a priority for Barzani to enhance stability and peace in the Kurdish region as this will speed up institutionalization and the legitimacy of the regional government. He will not wish to risk the achievements of the Iraqi Kurds by harboring the PKK, a terrorist network.

For this, Barzani called on the PKK during his visit to Ankara to “lay down [its] arms,” adding that they “won't get anywhere with weapons.” Another strong message Barzani gave was about the PKK presence in northern Iraq. He said, “I will not let the PKK prevail in northern Iraq.”

These messages may not persuade the PKK to lay down its arms and leave northern Iraq, but they will certainly put the PKK under strong pressure. Barzani does not control the PKK, but his influence over Kurds on both sides of the border is significant. This is not solely due to the historical struggle of the Barzani family for more than half a century in the region, but also due to Barzani's recent success in instituting semi-statehood in northern Iraq.

With this influence over Kurds and the trust of the Turkish government, Barzani can mediate a peace deal. The long-delayed Kurdish conference to be held in Arbil soon may be the beginning of a new era in which the PKK is compelled to come up with a “new thinking.”

Previous articles of the columnist