The solution to the Kurdish issue in the Middle East begins in Turkey

Turkey’s four decade long war against Kurdish militants will not end through endless cross-border military campaigns, Abdulla Hawez, a researcher and expert on Kurdish politics told Ahval during an interview for Turkey Abroad.

Since 1984, Turkey has been locked in a struggle against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group that is considered a terrorist organisation by Ankara, the United States and the European Union. This conflict has spilled across Turkish borders, drawing in its neighbours and their own minority Kurdish populations. 

A notable example has been Iraq where the PKK has used the autonomous Kurdistan Region as a base of operations for decades. The Turkish military has launched numerous raids into Iraq, targeting PKK hideouts in the Sinjar and Qandil mountains in the last three decades, contributing to the emptying of 504 villages according to a parliamentary report by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).  

In an attempt to pacify some of Turkey’s concerns about the PKK, the Iraqi government and KRG worked out an agreement over the northern province of Sinjar that would require local armed groups to disarm. The deal, negotiated with the help of the United States and United Nations, won support of the international community including Turkey.

Abdulla Hawez suggested that it was too early to tell whether the Sinjar agreement would affect the PKK’s presence in Sinjar and Iraq more broadly. 

“In Iraq, agreements on paper are something, implementing them on the ground is different,” Hawez told Ahval in a podcast interview. He cautioned that the deal may actually have an unintended side effect of pushing the PKK towards another power, Iran. 

One persistent criticism of the agreement was that it overlooked the impact it would have on the local Yezidi militias that would have to disarm. Hawez points out that these fighters are from the region and some with PKK ties have turned towards the Iranian backed militias for support. If this shift to Iran continued, it could complicate problems with the PKK inside Iraq. 

While noting Iran has its difficulties with its own Kurdish population, Hawez says these difficulties do not apply to the same extent with those beyond its borders.

“Iran wants to have a PKK that is weakened but can create problems for Turkey, who is a natural and historical rival of Iran,” said Hawez, adding that this is part of a pattern of rival nations using local Kurdish populations against their home nations. 

During the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran provided support to Kurdish rebels against Saddam Hussein and Syria similarly harbored the PKK, including its founder Abdullah Öcalan, until the 1990s as leverage against Turkey. The U.S also has allied with the PKK-connected People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS), even at the cost of rupturing relations with Ankara.

Turkey has long pushed the KRG to act against the PKK and its ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has no love lost for the group. Included in its parliamentary report from September   was a resolution that called on the PKK to cease provoking foreign nations acting against it.

The KDP and the Barzani clan that leads it have an extensive history of working together with Turkey against the PKK, who is an ideological rival in Kurdish politics. Nechivan Barzani, the KRG’s president, has called its presence “illegitimate” and his uncle, former president Masoud Barzani, demanded they leave the border regions with Turkey.  

Since concluding the Sinjar deal in October, KRG has increased the number of checkpoints and together with Baghdad deployed 6,000 troops to the region to constrain PKK operations.

In response, the PKK has stepped up its attacks on KRG peshmerga forces. Several weeks after the Sinjar deal was signed, the group attacked the Ceyan-Kirkuk pipeline, a crucial point  which transfers 600,000 barrels a day of oil to the Mediterannean. In early November, militants attacked a peshmerga convoy, killing one soldier.    

Hawez still describes the KRG as reluctant to escalate further at the moment. Years of war against ISIS and the combined impact of COVID-19 as well as the drop in oil prices has increased instability inside Iraqi Kurdistan. For the PKK in comparison, Hawez said its ability to operate in Iraq is “a matter of life and death” so it will resist violently. 

Turkey has made it clear that it will continue to strike at the PKK wherever it may hide through armed drones or its more refined intelligence apparatus that has taken its toll on PKK strongholds. However, Hawez says that even if Turkey today is stronger than before to continue its campaigns against the group, the PKK today is itself a different entity altogether. 

“Although Turkey is more powerful, this is not the PKK of the 1990s,” said Hawez. Rather than being a single group, the PKK has metastasized into multiple groups located across the region, complicating efforts to destroy it, let alone its cause, according to the researcher. 

“You may be able to weaken the PKK in Iraq militarily, you cannot actually end the rebel group. If you attack them in Iraq, how are you going to do the same in Syria or Sinjar or Iran?”  

If Turkey is to ultimately defeat its longtime foe, Hawez believes that that fight will have to be won closer to home by solving its own domestic issues with their Kurdish minority. Without doing that, the Kurdish cause will persist in other nations, ensuring the struggle too continues. 

“Without solving the Kurdish issue in Turkey, you will not solve the conflicts in Iraq and Syria between Kurds,” said Hawez. “You have to start with the Kurdish problem in Turkey.”