North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

Turkey’s invasion of northern Iraq could lead to Kurdish civil war

Attendees of a recent peace delegation responding to Turkey’s incursions into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq were detained at Erbil airport

Sarah Glynn
2 July 2021, 12.01am
Attendees of an international peace delegation were detained at Erbil airport
Ronan @unwisemonkeys / International Delegation for Peace and Freedom in Kurdistan

On 14 June, an international peace delegation of MPs, MEPs, lawyers, academics and social activists gathered in Erbil, the seat of government of the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Or that was the plan. In fact, many of the delegates were detained at Erbil airport and deported. Others, including two German MPs, were prevented from boarding their plane by the authorities in Germany and Qatar. And those who made it to their hotel in Erbil, were restricted in where they could go.

Why were these people determined to go to the delegation, at a time when any travel is difficult? And why were some authorities so keen on thwarting them?

The delegation was planned in response to Turkey’s incursions into the mountains of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq – and especially its most recent attack, which began on 23 April. Prominent Kurdish voices from across the world have long warned of the dangers of these incursions, and of the potential for a Kurdish civil war, deliberately triggered by Turkey – as well as of the dangerous instability that would engulf the whole region as a result. But few listen.

Invasion and Occupation

Previous Turkish invasions into the autonomous region of northern Syria were carried out using jihadi mercenaries and followed by ethnic cleansing and Turkification. While Turkey claimed to be creating a defensive buffer zone, the intent seemed more about permanent domination. The same pattern is being repeated in Iraq. Last July, Turkey claimed 37 military bases in the area, some as far as 40km from the border; now it is building more bases and linking roads.

This militarisation has been accompanied by the same scorched-earth tactics used to drive away the inhabitants from the Kurdish regions of Turkey and from Turkish-occupied Afrîn, in northern Syria.

The local economy revolved around orchards, beehives, grazing livestock – all of which have been under attack. Christian Peacemaker Teams have reported that “many of Turkey’s aerial and artillery strikes have directly targeted civilians”.

Acres of forest have been burnt and truckloads of timber have been taken across the Turkish border to be sold as firewood.

The resultant instability of leaving Turkey unchallenged to sow havoc could feed the growth of a new ISIS

This cannot be understood in isolation from Turkey’s other attacks against the Kurds – the crackdown on all parliamentary activity, the continued desecration of Kurdish areas of Turkey, the bombardment – in defiance of ceasefire agreements – of Autonomous Administration areas in Syria, the reported withholding of water from the Euphrates, and the burning of crops.

Every time Turkey carries out an act of aggression and the rest of the world turns a blind eye, it is encouraged to do more. If Turkey gains a stronger foothold in the Iraqi mountains, it could further cut off and threaten the Autonomous Administration in Syria, and exert greater control in Iraq.

The area under attack is where the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has its bases.

If Turkey is left unchallenged to sow havoc for its neighbours, to destroy lives, livelihoods and the environment, as well as driving out local populations, the resultant instability could impact the region for generations and feed the growth of a new ISIS.

As always, Turkey bats off potential criticism by portraying its actions as being only against ‘PKK terrorists’ – and NATO countries are eager to appease. Turkey is an important trading partner and market for the arms industry, and has also made an agreement to keep refugees out of Europe. The recent NATO summit and reports of US President Biden’s first meeting with the Turkish president, Recept Erdoğan, were notable for what they didn’t say about Turkey’s actions.

A bitter history

Turkey has carried out cross-border operations against PKK bases in Iraq since the 1980s. At the same time, it has developed closer bonds and greater economic leverage over the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which now dominates the Kurdistan regional government, and has built up a permanent and growing military presence in the region.

The KDP and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have proved themselves ruthless in the pursuit of power. Soon after the region gained de facto autonomy in 1991, their rivalry led to bitter civil war, and both were accused of endemic corruption and suppressing dissent. Over the years, both have joined Turkey in attacking PKK bases, but the KDP has proved a much more willing partner.

In the early 1980s, when members of the KDP also saw themselves as freedom fighters, they welcomed the PKK guerrillas who had come to Iraq to find a safe haven. But it wasn’t long before the KDP began to resent the PKK’s radicalism and its control of the mountains. At the same time as Turkey was carrying out extrajudicial killings and destroying thousands of villages in north Kurdistan/south-east Turkey, the KDP was helping the Turkish army to attack the PKK in Iraq.

The situation may seem intractable, but there is a simple solution

After 2012, far from welcoming the emergence of Kurdish autonomy in neighbouring northern Syria, the KDP shared Turkey’s horror at the region’s adoption of Kurdistan Workers' Party founder Abdullah Öcalan’s philosophy, and enforced an embargo on the region.

Then, in 2014, as ISIS swept through Iraq, the PKK came down from the mountains and helped push them back from the gates of Erbil – and the KDP’s leader, Masoud Barzani, came personally to thank them. But this has been quickly erased from memory.

When Turkey persuades the KDP to act against the PKK, it puts the PKK in a doubly difficult position. Not only does the group then have another enemy, but any move it makes against the KDP Peshmerga military forces will be used as propaganda by Turkey.

The KDP doesn’t want to be seen fighting other Kurds either, but its forces can be used to cut off PKK supply lines to make it easier for the Turkish military and their mercenaries to go in for the kill.

The current invasion is both a continuation of earlier battles and something more dangerous. This is not simply due to Turkish drones that make it harder for guerrilla forces to move undetected. The political situation is different, too.

Turkey’s President Erdoğan is a man of huge personal ambition, and the main obstacle to his ambition is the Kurds. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) provides the only consistent political opposition within Turkey. The neighbouring lands Erdoğan covets have large Kurdish populations that have gained increasing autonomy. Erdoğan attempted to win support by promoting peace with the Kurds, but votes went, instead, to the HDP, depriving him of his overall majority.

In 2015, he turned his back on peace negotiations, instead looking to build support through an increasingly authoritarian nationalist agenda. As his popularity collapsed along with the economy in 2015, he attempted to counter this through ethno-religious populism, a crackdown on all opposition within Turkey, and an increasingly aggressive foreign policy. Erdoğan’s foreign wars act as an immediate distraction from troubles at home, and they feed his neo-Ottoman dreams.

The situation may seem intractable, but there is a simple solution. If the same energy could be put into pushing for a revival of peace negotiations between Turkey and the PKK as was put into the fight against ISIS, the future could look very different: much more in line with what international leaders claim to believe in, if not so bright for the arms industry. The PKK has long been ready for such negotiations. Peace delegations need to be welcomed, not shut down.

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