[Opinion] Turkey increases military presence in Iraq amid Kurdish infighting

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Türkmen Terzi 

As the world’s largest stateless nation, Kurds have struggled for a century in pursuit of an independent state on the Mesopotamian plains; however, the recent armed conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq once again puts into perspective the dangers of Kurdish disunity as well as creating an opportunity for Turkey to deepen its military presence in Iraqi territory.

The PKK’s recent activities in northern Iraq, particularly in the town of Sinjar, have become a major security concern for Turkey, The KRG and Baghdad consider the area a key strategic transportation point for the PKK and Iran-backed Shiite militia on the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon route. The Federal Government of Iraq together with the KRG signed the Sinjar deal in Erbil in October 2020 under the auspices of the United Nation in the hope of reducing the PKK presence in Mosul’s Sinjar district. The PKK has, however, since the deal increased its presence in KRG territory in northern Iraq. The PKK was responsible for killing six Peshmerga troops in Duhok as well as kidnapping two Peshmerga in the Khanasor region near Sinjar on June 5.

“#PKK unfortunately has taken advantage of our gvt goodwill and occupied land. We hope this won’t escalate and that PKK will realize their military presence here will definitely not be tolerated by us” KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said in criticizing the PKK’s presence in the region in an interview with France24, @mperelman tweeted on Feb. 27.

Meanwhile, Turkey continues its large-scale air and ground operation called Claw-Eagle 2 against PKK militants holed up in the northern Iraqi region of Dohuk. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar’s visit to a Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) military base in northern Iraq last month angered Iraqi authorities. Akar was accompanied by Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaşar Güler and Turkish Land Forces Commander Ümit Dündar to supervise the Turkish Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt military operations against the PKK terrorist group. Baghdad summoned the Turkish chargé d’affaires on May 3, delivering a démarche protesting Akar’s visit to a Turkish base in northern Iraq.

In January Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkey might conduct a joint counterterrorism operation with Iraq with the intent of clearing PKK terrorists out of the Sinjar region. “We may go there overnight, all of a sudden,” Erdoğan threatened.

Following the withdrawal of Peshmerga forces from Sinjar without resistance when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) invaded the town in 2014, armed groups affiliated with the PKK managed to establish a foothold in Sinjar in mid-2014 with the justification that it was protecting Yazidis from ISIL. Since then, the PKK has been trying to set up a new base in Sinjar in addition to its main headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, a KRG-controlled area.

The Iraqi army and Peshmerga forces have claimed to have defeated ISIS in the area together with the International Coalition, but the PKK has resisted withdrawal from Sinjar, and the group subsequently established the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) and the Sinjar Women’s Units (YJŞ) to mobilize Yazidis against ISIL and Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).These two PKK-affiliated groups have become the foundation of the Sinjar Democratic Autonomous Council and Yazidi Freedom, and YBS’s political wing, the Democracy Party.

Turkey has since 1990 conducted several large-scale military operations against the PKK; however, President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has redirected Turkey’s military-centered foreign policy towards soft power by pursuing economic, political and cultural influence since the party came to power in 2002. The Iraq-Turkey Crude Oil Pipeline, constructed by Turkey, has continued transporting approximately 25 percent of Iraq’s oil exports despite wars, sabotage and UN economic sanctions for the last three decades. Turkey has also reportedly granted Iraq several concessions over the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Since the withdrawal of former US President Donald Trump from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal, in May 2018, Iran has largely lost its market in Iraq and Turkey while Saudi Arabia’s influence increased in the country. “Turkey enjoys a distinguished position in Iraq, as it is an important neighboring country that has historical and trade links with Iraq.” Iraqi Trade Minister Alaa Al-Jabouri commented at a meeting with Turkey’s ambassador in Baghdad Fatih Yıldız. The meeting was held in December 2020 with the intent of increasing trade volume between the two countries.

However, the Baghdad government is still suspicious of Turkey’s support for armed groups during the war against ISIL. The Iraqi government has also on several occasions warned Turkey against its endless military operations against the PKK in Iraqi territory.

The Talabani family, which governs Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah region, also supports the PKK against the KDP, as the late Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is ideologically closer to the PKK.

Turkey’s military presence in Iraq has become a point of major concern not only for Baghdad but also for pro-Iranian forces in the country, as they have threatened Turkey, demanding it refrain from targeting their forces in Iraq.

The Iranian-backed Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq warned Turkey in February, stating that it would “block any aggressive behavior” by Turkey. Another Iran-backed paramilitary group in Iraq, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, the same month vowed to attack the Turkish military if it continued to carry out counterterrorism operations in northern Iraq. Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces, PMF) warned the Turkish military and the government to stop targeting pro-Iranian groups,  Turkey’s pro-government  English language Daily Sabah reported.

The Turkish military operation Claw-Eagle 2, carried out in Iraq’s Gara region with the intent of rescuing its citizens, led to the execution of 13 Turkish intelligence and police personnel by the PKK. Following the incident Iran and Turkey summoned each other’s ambassadors. “We do not accept at all, be it Turkey or any other country, to intervene in Iraq militarily or advance or have a military presence in Iraq,” Iranian ambassador in Baghdad Iraj Masjedi said in a February interview with Kurdish news outlet Rudaw, criticizing Turkey’s operations in Iraq.

Almost 40 million Kurds live in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Armenia, and for many decades Kurdish political groups in these countries have been in a state of conflict over various territories. The Talabani and Barzani families have been engaged in a power struggle in northern Iraq, and while Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples‘ Democratic Party (HDP) participates in parliamentary politics, it is the PKK that is engaged in armed struggle in the mountainous regions. In addition, Kurdish political parties in Syria do not function homogeneously and instead have competed with each other to establish control since the 2011 Syrian uprising. Turkey continues to fight the PKK and its Syrian branch, the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD). The Turkish military has already established itself in Syria’s Afrin region following a military intervention in 2018, and now Turkish incursions are getting deeper — up to 20 kilometers (12 miles) inside Iraqi Kurdistan to prevent the unification of Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

It seems that the Erbil and Baghdad authorities will have to turn a blind eye to the Turkish military presence in northern Iraq in the face of increasing Iranian and PKK influence.

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