Remember Iraqi Kurdistan
President Joe Biden will raise concerns about Turkey’s abysmal human rights record and its aggressive behaviour in the region when the two leaders meet at the NATO summit on June 14. Turkey’s deployment of its armed forces and jihadi mercenaries to Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh is a high priority. Turkey’s disregard for Iraq’s territorial integrity is also on the agenda. Turkey targets Kurds and Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan, violating Iraq’s territorial integrity and sowing the seeds of a regional conflagration.
Turkey’s security state has targeted the PKK since the 1980s, resulting in the deaths of at least 40,000 people. Turkish warplanes and armed Bayraktar drones regularly bomb PKK bases in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq. The Turkish Grand National Assembly authorised hot pursuit operations to root out PKK fighters and destroy their bases. In addition, Turkish troops regularly launch cross-border operations.
Biden will remind Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan there is no military solution to the conflict with the PKK. While Kurds previously supported a “Greater Kurdistan”, today they demand greater political and cultural rights within Turkey. Kurds support Turkey’s EU membership, which requires greater minority rights protected and promoted through the rule of law.
Rather than reconciliation, however, Erdoğan is ratcheting up pressure on the Kurds. In addition to draconian security measures, the government recently initiated a court case to close the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Prominent Kurdish politicians, such as HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdağ, have been jailed for allegedly supporting a terrorist organisation. Furthermore, scores of democratically-elected Kurdish mayors have been replaced with pro-government “trustees”.
Biden should seek the release of Demirtas and Yüksekdağ, as well as other political prisoners. Moreover, he should emphasise there is no military solution to the Kurdish question. Instead, the U.S. should support international facilitation to advance dialogue with the PKK. Mediation is the best way to resolve the Kurdish question.
In the 1990s, Turkish officials believed that the United States was stewarding an independent entity in Iraqi Kurdistan. They even refused to mention “Kurdistan” when referring to Kurdish-majority lands in Northern Iraq. Erdoğan has turned his back on reconciliation, cracking down on Kurds at home and taking the fight to Kurds in the region.
Turkey’s recent assault on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has destroyed villages and displaced civilians. Turkey has established approximately 40 military bases and outposts on Iraqi territory under the pretext of fighting the PKK.
Turkish warplanes targeted the UN’s Makhmour Refugee Camp, home to about 13,000 Kurds. F-16s and drones also attacked the Sinjar region, still struggling to recover from the ISIS genocide of Yezidis. Christian communities in the Ninewa Plains have also been attacked.
The U.S. should enforce a no-fly zone in the skies above Iraqi Kurdistan if Turkey continues bombing. Biden should also warn Erdoğan to stop supporting proxies such as Sunni Turkmen militias in Kirkuk Province and Sunni Arab militia forces in Ninewa, as well as jihadist mercenaries with Al-Nusra and other Al-Qaeda affiliated groups who behead victims and mutilate their bodies.
The U.S. has a special responsibility for stabilising Iraq, given its role in removing Saddam Hussein. Iraq has enough difficulties with Iranian-backed militias who influence events in Baghdad. Biden should make clear that the U.S. will oppose violations of Iraq’s territorial integrity by any front-line state, including Turkey.
Biden has a long list of concerns about Turkey’s regional transgressions, including disregard for the rules-based international order. The Washington Kurdish Institute will convene a panel of experts on June 8, to develop recommendations for the Biden-Erdoğan meeting. Defending Iraqi Kurds – America’s best friends in Iraq – must be a priority.