'Turkey bolsters military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan' - Arab media review

Turkey has firmly grasped the initiative in its conflict against Kurdish forces linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and statements from Ankara indicate a firm resolve to extend military operations from the northwest Syrian area of Afrin to locations in northern Syria and Iraq.

Last week’s roundup included reports on Tel Rifaat and Manbij in northern Syria, and Sinjar and the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq, each of which is a potential target for expanded Turkish military operations against the PKK.

Local sources reported last week an increase in Turkish operations in Sidakan, an area in northern Iraq close to the foothills of the Qandil mountains, a territory of central importance to the PKK.

The Turkish military has established three new bases in the Kani Rash and Hakurk areas in Iraqi Kurdistan, a London-based New Arab news site reported on Thursday.

Work is already underway on roads to connect the new bases, with 13 kilometres constructed so far, according to the New Arab’s report. Contact has also been made with locals to arrange for them to continue cultivating land under Turkish control.

Turkish forces have had a presence in Iraqi Kurdistan since the mid-1990s, with an estimated 2,000 special forces and intelligence offers having been deployed in the capital city of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and other cities since 1998. Cooperation with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has reportedly included Turkey training the local fighters, known as Peshmerga.

Relations with the Iraqi central government, however, have been frayed by Turkey’s continuing presence in Bashiqa, east of Mosul, where the Turkish military has established a base during the fight against the Islamic State. The Turkish government has decided to keep the base in commission for another year, despite the successful completion of its objectives.

Tensions flared up further last week with threats from Turkey to attack PKK fighters in Sinjar, an Iraqi-Kurdish town near the Turkish border. Ankara continued its threats this week, despite an announcement by the PKK that they were withdrawing from the area.

Baghdad has responded by stubbornly rejecting any such incursion by Turkey. However, reports in the Arab media have indicated that two sides are engaging in a less blunt style of diplomacy behind the scenes.

Turkey suspended its plans to conduct bomb strikes on Sinjar after it reached a preliminary agreement with Iraq last Tuesday evening, Iraqi daily newspaper Al-Mashriq reported on Thursday.

This was followed on Wednesday by a surprise visit to Turkey by Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi, who would discuss the ongoing Sinjar issue with Turkish officials, according to another report Al-Mashriq.

Two more potential targets for Turkish military action are Tel Rifaat and Manbij, located to the east of Afrin in northwest Syria.

After the Turkish victory in Afrin, cracks have begun to appear in Kurdish forces’ hold over these areas. Groups affiliated with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is itself linked to the PKK, took control of both areas after driving out the Islamic State in 2016.

Last week, protests that were reportedly attended by fighters from the Turkish-allied Free Syrian Army took place within Tal Rifaat, calling on Turkey to extend Operation Olive Branch to take the town.  

This week the Northern Syria Observer published interviews with refugees from Tal Rifaat who made the same call. The refugees say they are among as many as 250,000 living in camps after the YPG forced out of their homes in Tal Rifaat and other villages in the area two years ago.

“We were promised we would be able to go back to our homes after Euphrates Shield,” said one refugee, referring to Turkey’s 2016-17 military operation in northern Syria. “But these were all empty promises, and nothing has been done.”

“We have been living in the dirt for two years … Enough with this humiliation, we want our homes,” said another.

The Iraqi Kurdish news network Rudaw, however, places the number of displaced Tal Rifaat residents at 50,000, “and 183,000 in total after Turkey seized (Afrin)”, and says that internally displaced people from the region are being prevented from returning to Afrin by Turkish military forces.

The YPG-affiliated groups in control of Manbij have been facing similar dissent, with renewed protests against their rule by Arab tribes.

The Al-Bobna clan rose in protest in early March after two of its members were found dead after being detained by security forces.

Further protests were staged last week by hundreds of members of the al-Mashi, Bobanna and Dandan clans in Abu Qalqal village near Manbij, the Northern Syria Observer reported on Tuesday.

The protesters marched towards the city’s main square calling on Bashar al-Assad’s regime to take control of Manbij from the Kurdish forces, after Turkey dealt them a blow in Afrin.

Security forces intervened, beating the protesters once they reached the main square, also shooting at least one protester who was later hospitalised, according to the NSO’s report.