What PYD Leader Muslim's Baghdad Visit Means
It seems like PYD is seeking help to consolidate its position that it has strengthened significantly. Taking control of Raqqa’s Tal Abyad town from ISIS in northern Syria near Turkish border boosted Syrian Kurds’ dream of establishing an entity similar to Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. Taking control of Tal Abyad enabled Kurds to link geographically two cantons of Kobani and Jazira, which were declared in January 2014. In addition to this, PYD has the position of controlling a great portion Turkish-Syrian border and 6 out of 13 border gates. This development pushed PYD to establish a “Kurdish region” in northern Syria and seek support to consolidate it. Indeed, it appeared in Kurdish media that PYD leader Saleh Muslim visited Baghdad secretly in June 2015 and met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi. Even more, claims included that Muslim offered mutual control of northern parts of Iraqi-Syrian border and guaranteed Bashar Assad that they would make the support from Iraq convenient.
Muslim’s Baghdad visit includes several significant clues for Iraq and Syria in terms of regional equations. First of all, it seems that PYD is in a mediatory role. Indeed, giving a guarantee to make Iraqi support for Bashar Assad easier have the characteristics of a message from Assad to Iraq. PYD, which is portrayed as the local ally by the US against ISIS as it was seen in Tal Abyad operation, seems like it has a relation with the Assad regime and its shape appears with this sort of actions. As a result of this, the allegations that PYD is cooperating with the regime get more strength. PKK’s Syrian branch PYD’s cooperation with the regime comes as no surprise when one considers the historical cooperation between PKK and Assad regime. In addition to this, as US President Barack Obama points out in his statements, it is being stated repeatedly that the priority of the US is eliminating ISIS threat rather than Assad’s leaving. At this point, US support for PYD to hold territorial control, brings claims that argue the US has given the green light for Assad’s control on a “limited” territory indirectly due to PYD-Assad relation.
On the other side of the spectrum, PYD is trying to curb KRG’s President Massoud Barzani’s impact who is trying to be effective on Kurdish enclaves in Syria. Muslim is trying to limit Erbil’s impact on Kurdish regions in Syria by pulling Baghdad to his side. In addition, there is an obvious struggle between PKK leadership and Massoud Barzani for national Kurdish leadership. For this reason Muslim wants to curb Barzani’s effect in order to have the upper hand in case of establishment of a Kurdish state in Syria. However, considering the fact that Baghdad has no control over in northern Iraq since ISIS’s Iraq offensive, it is possible to say that although Muslim wants to act freely in Syria he will have to find a common ground with Barzani. A reconciliatory attitude would be beneficial for PYD considering peshmerga’s role, sent by Barzani, in retaking Kobani from ISIS. Moreover, PYD’s acting in unilateral way will hurt its position in Syria since cohesive rhetoric brings more supporters from all sides.
Furthermore, it seems like PYD also gave a message to Iran with the Baghdad visit. Saleh Muslim's comments on Hasd al Shabi, one of many Shia groups supported by Iran in the fight against ISIS, especially demanding that it to be located in border regions could be seen as an indicator of the message given to Iran. However, within the current situation Mosul’s Sinjar town near Syrian border is under Kurdish control and Sunni Arabs’ rejection to Hasd al Shabi’s placement in the case of wiping out ISIS seems highly likely, and these two situations make PYD’s offer quite unlikely to conduct. Nevertheless, considering the facts that Iran supports Assad regime, tries not to go against the US in Iraq and Syria, and cooperates with the US indirectly in the fight against ISIS, the possibility of Iran-PYD convergence should be kept in mind. Iran is already applying a multi-directional foreign policy. In case of an agreed course of action between the regime and PYD, it is highly likely that Iran would support it as well.
At this point, Turkey’s position should not be ignored. Turkey is conducting a clear cut policy against Assad and irritated by PYD’s policies in northern Syria. Within this context, it would not be wrong to say that PYD is also seeking support against Turkey. For this reason, Baghdad’s attitude becomes important since it seeks good relations with Turkey. Baghdad’s support for an entity that Turkey rejects might shadow the relations between Turkey and Iraqi Central Government. For this reason, Baghdad should consider regional dynamics and realities rather than local actors’ interest calculations.