Tensions build over Turkish operations in north Iraq

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed to eliminate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Qandil and Sinjar regions of Iraq and stop cross-border raids by the group that has been fighting for self-rule recently in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast for more than three decades.

The PKK has its headquarters in the mountains of Qandil, near where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey converge. Turkish airstrikes have often targeted the militant group there.

But media reports suggest Turkey has deployed additional reinforcements to the areas of Biradost and Barzan inside the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, which some observers see as preparation for a major offensive against the PKK.

“The Turkish army build-up in Iraqi Kurdistan has been going on for months,” said Yerevan Saeed, a researcher at the Middle East Research Institute, a think tank in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital Erbil. “For years, Turkey has been thinking of launching a massive military campaign against the PKK.”

“It appears Ankara seeks to establish some type of security belt outside its borders to diminish the PKK insurgency and lessen its impact on Kurdistan of Turkey,” he said.

The Turkish military in June announced a new phase of operations against PKK targets across northern Iraq. Turkey has long maintained several military outposts in the Kurdish region of Iraq in order to fight the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

In 1983, Turkey and Iraq signed a security agreement that allowed the Turkish military to operate up to 20 km inside Iraqi territory in pursuit of insurgents.

“That agreement was reached with the former regime of Saddam Hussein, but since 2003 no Iraqi government has attempted to do something about it,” said Adel Bakawan, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

“Iraq is a failed state and therefore it is difficult to see any Iraqi government now or in the future being bold enough to demand Turkey to end that agreement, at least to protect Iraqi Kurdish civilians from Turkish attacks,” he told Ahval.

Residents in Iraq’s northern border villages also have been caught in the Turkish airstrike and artillery campaign, local sources said.

“In a July operation conducted by Turkish warplanes, nine innocent civilians were killed and more than 13 wounded in several remote villages of Erbil province,” said Iraqi Kurdish journalist Omid Jwanro, who has documented civilian casualties in Turkish attacks.

He said at least 35 civilians had been killed in Turkish attacks on Iraqi border villages this year.

Turkey denies killing civilians in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“When we talk to Turkish officials to complain about such attacks, they tell us they’re only targeting PKK fighters,” Yahya al-Zubaidi, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of Defence told Voice of America’s Kurdish Service in an interview.

“But Turkey must respect Iraq’s sovereignty. Other neighbouring countries should also respect Iraq’s territorial sovereignty,” he said.   

Analysts believe that despite these continued Turkish operations in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) would most likely remain neutral.

“The KRG wants to be part of the regional system and so it can’t oppose Turkey or Iran, even when these two countries are attacking Iraqi Kurdish civilians, not just the PKK,” Bakawan said.

He said Iraqi Kurds were so dependent on Turkey that they had been forced to keep quiet about Turkish military actions in their region, because “any opposing move or stance by the KRG could result in huge economic ramifications for Iraqi Kurds. Turkey can literally choke the Kurdish region if it wants to.”

Although explicit cooperation with Turkey against the PKK is unlikely, experts believe that the two rival ruling political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Partiotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) could use the PKK as a bargaining chip against one another, and against the central government in Baghdad.

“This could be possible if we see more rifts between the KDP and the PUK,” said Saeed.

“If the KDP thinks it is sidelined, dependency on Ankara will increase, thereby it has to yield to more demands from Turkey. So this balance is a decisive factor in how the KDP will act in regard to the PKK,” he said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.