When asked about his alliance with the then Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, late Jalal Talabani remarked* once that “one cannot go merrily around in the Mid-East as if in a supermarket to choose allies but one has to make do with whichever ally one can find.” Hence, it does not appear, say, lame to me that Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) President Nechirvan Barzani paid a courtesy visit to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara while at the same time the Turkish Armed Forces spread and deepen their foothold in Haftanin.
Yet, some other aspects of the visits are still worth pondering upon, in my humble opinion. Spoiler alert: Yes, I had served as Turkey’s first consul general in Erbil from March 2010 till June 2013 when I resigned from government service altogether. It was quite a convoluted ride, least to say. Scandals (!) galore almost all the time: Display of the IKR flag, uttering the word “Kurdistan” by your humble servant,
But also landmark events as the first visit of any Turkish Prime Minister to Erbil, by none other than by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, Erbil being decorated by Turkish flags, marketing of the Kurdish oil from Ceyhan to global markets. It is also perhaps worthy of notice that Kak Nechirvan is a member of the secluded club of “the three tall men” together with Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaidjan and Sheikh Tameem of Qatar who managed well to establish good chemistry with “the” tall man himself. That was not given, and you have to hand it to Kak Nechirvan.
This time around with this particular visit, few so-called “diplomatic” details jump to the keen observer’s attention. As we are not and we will not be privy to the content of any exchange between the two leaders during their not among delegations but tête-a-tête meeting we will have to make do with those. Although we have to also keep in mind that the beef, if there is any, is definitely elsewhere, unbeknownst to us, lay people. Let’s try and have a look then.
First, Kak Nechirvan employed different sets of officials to accompany him in his almost back-to-back meetings with French President Macron in Baghdad and the Turkish President Erdoğan in Ankara. His PUK deputy was ominously absent in Ankara. Furthermore, PUK co-chair Lahur Talabani met with Macron, alongside with President Barham Saleh. In Ankara, as Chief of Staff I believe, we had Kareem Sinjari, while in Baghdad in the same seat we had Fawzi Hariri. Sinjari is still seen as the wise man in charge of the “security” and “counter-terrorism” files (read PKK) and is known commodity in Ankara.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Çavuşoğlu again used the acronym “IKR”, the “K” in which can be conveniently There was no IKR flag around: Meeting with the MFA being a familial “unofficial” breakfast in the garden and presidency protocol allowing only the Turkish flag to be in display –at that level. So the emphasis was on “hey, this is business as usual, now everything is as unofficial as they can get” on the Turkish side. On the Kurdish side it was “look, I and only I still have privileged direct access to Erdoğan.”
If I am not mistaken, one more person to take note of by not his presence, but his absence, was Berat Albayrak. Does that mean money and oil are no longer priorities at all? Or that the IKR side found it more efficient to go directly to the fountain’s dead to better make use of their short and valuable time in Ankara. We do not know. Other details may turn out in the coming days, so let’s not over-read the tea leaves.
Timing wise, this also was a very belated first visit to Ankara by the IKR President. Why did he wait for so long or rather why Ankara kept him waiting for so long? That is probably due to internal political tensions and the pretended balance between the military and the diplomatic tools. Based on the meagre IKR statement with not much flesh on its bones, we are led to believe that neither counterterrorism nor the ongoing abovementioned TAF military operation within the IKR were among the main topics touched upon.
Henceforth, this is a tad disappointing to watch from a distance this almost “non-visit”. Almost no media coverage, no official statement by neither the Turkish presidency or the Turkish foreign ministry. Unlike the IKR statement, a single line at the MFA website informs us that “PKK was the foremost topic that has been discussed.” It feels like it’s altogether back to 1990’s. An internally divided IKR and transactional personal relations with IKR leaders based on the fight against PKK.
Even still, perhaps there is cause for rejoice that this visit per se happened. It is always preferable to keep direct, face-to-face communication lines open. And I also do hope that there are enough number of officials on both side with a modicum of common sense to look forward towards a better future for all our children. Still, normalisation is not the same with voiding of content and diplomacy is not play acting.
*If my memory serves me right, this yarn would have been related by none other than Cengiz Çandar in his gem of a book “Mezopotamya Ekspresi”, however I am unable to reference it properly as the book is not returned to me by the person who retrieved from my library years ago.