Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, in a photo taken in 2015.. (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
On Saturday Kurdish protesters in northern Iraq briefly entered a Turkish base after Turkish airstrikes had killed Kurdish civilians last week. The rare protest comes amid rising tensions in the region as Turkey seeks to strike at the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Iraq and Syria. This puts the autonomous Kurdish region in a bind, as it simultaneously desires to support the civilian protesters while maintaining amicable relations with Turkey and preventing the PKK-Turkey conflict from inflaming tensions in the region.
Established in the 1990s, the Kurdistan Regional Government saw many years of instability after its foundation as the leading Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) fought a civil conflict. The Kurds had emerged from the terror of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime to enjoy a respite of sorts from Saddam's genocidal chemical attacks and depopulation efforts. Along the border with Turkey more than 600 villages had been abandoned by the Kurds as Saddam sought to move them into towns and keep an eye on the restive region.
From the 1990s to the 2000s a new conflict elbowed its way into the region. The PKK was fighting Turkey in that country's east and had set up bases in the mountains of northern Iraq. Turkey, which had hosted many Kurdish refugees during the Saddam era, sent its troops into Iraq. It expanded its operations after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein. Just as the KRG was expanding its economy and becoming the most peaceful region of Iraq, free from insurgents, Turkey expanded operations in 2007. Between 2013 and 2015 Turkey and the PKK held a ceasefire. The KRG, content to be rid of the Turkish-PKK fighting that had an impact on its territory, was then faced with a massive attack by Islamic State in August 2014. Thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga died in the subsequent battles with ISIS.
The KRG and its President Masoud Barzani enjoyed a warm relationship with Turkey during this period. Kurdish officials regularly visited Turkey, meetings with foreign minister and then prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and also with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. These high level meetings took place from 2013 to 2017. In 2017 the Kurdish flag was even raised at the airports in Ankara and Istanbul, and was present alongside the Iraqi flag at meetings. (Turkey had difficult relations with Iraq at the time, and Iraq opposed the Turks' building a base at Bashiqa on hills overlooking Mosul where Turkey was training local Arab forces.) But things soured in September 2017 when the KRG held an independence referendum. KDP offices were closed in Turkey and Ankara worked with Iran and Iraq to oppose the KRG's independence efforts. Turkey even stopped flights to Sulimaniyah, the city where the PUK is strongest. There were threats to the KRG economy, which has survived on oil and other exports and imports via Turkey.
This year the Turkish-Kurdish conflict appeared to be on the mend, but Turkey drove a hard bargain. With the PKK-Turkey ceasefire in tatters since 2015, Turkey has increased its campaign against the PKK. It launched airstrikes in Sinjar in April 2017 and August 2018 to strike at what it says are PKK units among the Yazidis on Sinjar mountain. It increased its operations in the KRG's mountains and even near Erbil, the capital. Ankara said it had 11 bases in northern Iraq in the summer of 2018. Many of these consist of hill forts, with HESCO-style barriers, tanks and vehicles. The overall number of Turkish soldiers is not known. The war with the PKK is largely fought in the shadows in northern Iraq. Sometimes Turkish F-16s also target what Ankara says are PKK positions. In December they struck at an outpost near a refugee camp near Makhmour, a half hour drive from Erbil.
In general Turkey has been careful not to kill local civilians, but the KRG feels caught in the middle. KRG Peshmerga, the armed forces of the region, were killed in the 2017 Sinjar airstrikes. On January 23 two Kurdish men journeyed from their village near Diraluk, in a bucolic valley, to tend their bees on a hillside, and then were killed in an airstrike. Locals say four more men were also killed last week. This led to anger in Diraluk and Shiladze, a nearby village. These villages mostly support the KDP, which has traditionally had warm relations with Ankara. Some are also supporters of the KIU party, a Kurdish party influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. But the locals, who are not PKK supporters, were so outraged that they marched toward the Turkish base with black banners calling on the PKK and Turkey to end the war in their area.
Based on conversations with locals, the protesters were initially peaceful but some youth threw stones and Turkish soldiers fired in the air. Enraged, the protesters burned the Turkish army vehicles. This was embarrassing for Turkey. Its soldiers fired at the feet of the protesters and two protesters were reported killed. However, the KRG has now been criticized for its reaction. Instead of condemning Turkey, its statement blamed outside hands for inflaming the crowd, while also expressing sympathy for the victims. The statement hinted that the KRG was holding the PKK responsible.
Locals say that the situation is difficult. They want the war to end in the mountains so that the KRG can improve its economy and so that Turkish forces will withdraw. They also oppose Turkey's crackdown, but they wish the conflict would remain on Turkey's side of the border. The KRG can't force the Turkish army to leave. Baghdad has summoned the Turkish ambassador in the past and complained again this week, but Iraq has no power to control its own airspace or to keep Turkey from hunting the PKK in Iraq. The leading parties of the KRG, the KDP and PUK have difficult relations with the PKK, but they are against an internal Kurdish conflict. This leaves the status quo, in which Turkey and the PKK hold sway in the mountains near the border, and locals, who tend to support the KDP or PUK, go about their life.
With Turkey vowing to clear eastern Syria of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara says is part of the PKK, the region may be inflamed by a larger Turkey-PKK war again. Turkey has vowed to eradicate the PKK, including in Afrin where it launched an operation in January 2018. It also wants to remove what it says are PKK elements from Sinjar and other areas in northern Iraq. Neighboring countries and the international community do not oppose Turkey's efforts, leaving local governments like the KRG to balance anger against the powerful Turkish army with their own desire to maintain stability. After the protests this weekend, the situation remains on edge.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.