On Nov. 16, 2013, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan presided over a mass wedding in the Kurds’ informal capital, Diyarbakir, amid piercing ululations and wild applause. Massoud Barzani, the then-president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and two celebrated Kurdish crooners shared the stage. It was an electrifying moment, one that captured the new spirit of peace between Turkey and its estimated 16 million Kurds. Talks between the Turkish government and imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan to end the now 37-year conflict between Turkey and Ocalan’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) were in full swing. A mutually observed cease-fire was in place.
For Siwan Perwer, whose nationalist songs have inspired millions of Kurds, it was the first time he was setting foot in his native Anatolia after 37 years of political exile. “When I left this place, I was a young man. Now I have returned an old man,” Perwer said. Erdogan “is the architect of this day of peace,” he added, as Erdogan’s wife, Emine, teared up with joy.
Last week, Perwer, now 65, was singing a markedly different tune. At a news conference in Erbil, the capital of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Perwer joined fellow Kurdish performers in calling for Kurds to unite against “the enemy.” It was, he cautioned his Iraqi Kurdish hosts, “working on invading this part as well.” Perwer was talking about Turkey’s ongoing military offensive against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, part of an escalating, multipronged campaign spread across Turkey, northern Syria and northern Iraq, which began after the peace talks and the 2½-year cease-fire collapsed in July 2015. As the PKK camp sees things, Turkey’s goal is to destroy the Iraqi Kurds’ constitutionally enshrined autonomy and to make sure their Syrian brethren never get anything like it.
Turkey invaded northern Syria twice, in January 2018 and October 2019, wresting hefty chunks of territory from Kurdish control. But the bulk of its firepower is trained on the PKK’s mountain hideouts in Iraqi Kurdistan long used by the rebels to attack Turkey. The human toll both among rebels and civilians caught in the crossfire is mounting daily. But so too is the political cost to Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as it faces mounting discontent over widespread corruption and economic hardship pervading the entire region.
Turkey’s all-out assault is also causing quarrels within the PKK itself, with unforeseen consequences for the future of the broader Ocalan-led movement, which survived despite the latter’s capture in 1999 and went on to extend its global appeal beyond left-wing revolutionary circles through its success against the Islamic State in northern Syria.
The United States’ support for Turkey’s anti-PKK operations has sown discord among the US-backed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which operate under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF commander in chief, Mazlum Kobane, is increasingly squeezed between loyalty to the PKK, whose ranks he served in for decades, and the need to advance Syrian Kurdish autonomy with KRG and American support.
The PKK accuses Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which dominates the KRG (the prime minister is Barzani’s eldest son, Masrour, the president is his nephew Nechirvan), of actively participating in the Turkish operations, providing manpower and intelligence. It has repeatedly warned that a full-blown Turkish-induced brakuji (the Kurdish word for fratricide), witnessed in the early 1990s, will soon recur. Nothing would please Ankara more.
Tensions came to a head June 5, when five Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters perished in what KRG officials say was a PKK ambush in the Amedi region where Murat Karayilan, a top PKK commander, is based. The PKK denies that it was responsible for their deaths and has called for an independent inquiry. The same day, the KRG presidency released a statement condemning the attack, saying the "PKK’s aggression against the Kurdistan Region must stop immediately."
The KDP insists that it’s the PKK presence in Iraqi Kurdistan that invites Turkey’s wrath, and that the PKK should therefore carry its fight for Kurdish rights back to Turkey where it belongs. The PKK ripostes that its battle is for all Kurds, be they in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria or in the diaspora and that the KDP is enabling Turkey to drive an ever-deeper wedge between them.
This message resonates with some of the swelling number of jobless Iraqi Kurds, particularly young people, leaving them vulnerable to PKK influence. The International Labor Organization noted recently that “despite the efforts of the Kurdistan Regional Government to reduce unemployment, joblessness among the working age population remains one of the largest challenges in the Autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq. Youth between 15 and 24 years or age are particularly affected with youth unemployment rates standing at around 18 per cent and rates for female youth, some 10 per cent higher than their male counterparts.”
A KRG source told Al-Monitor, “People see us wearing suits, sitting in golden chairs and driving posh cars, while the PKK roughs it out in caves, in austerity, under constant assault, projecting a romantic image of heroic selflessness and bravery. This fires the imagination of young people even though the PKK opposed our independence referendum.” The source was referring to the Iraqi Kurds’ 2017 referendum on breaking off from Iraq, which was stiffly opposed by Baghdad, the United States, Turkey and Iran.
Arzu Yilmaz, a visiting scholar at Hamburg University and an expert on the Kurds, agrees that while the PKK is suffering militarily it is winning over Iraqi Kurdish hearts and minds. Yilmaz noted that Kurdish parties in the KRG were losing support in recent years. "There are many indicators of this, be it declining party enrollment figures, electoral participation and the growing number of public protests to name a few,” Yilmaz told Al-Monitor. KRG authorities accuse the PKK of stoking the unrest, arresting scores of protestors and journalists accused of supporting the militant group.
While the PKK has always had its followers in Iraqi Kurdistan, sharpening Kurdish nationalist feelings in response to Kurdish gains in northeast Syria and rising fury at Turkey’s mounting aggression have recently increased feelings of empathy and support for the PKK, Yilmaz said.
It’s not just the KDP that’s feeling the heat. In Sulaimaniyah, the headquarters of the KDP’s main political rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the PKK is experiencing growing popularity. This is in part due to the PUK’s perceived complicity with Baghdad in the 2017 overrunning of Kirkuk, the oil-rich province the Kurds claim as their “Jerusalem,” said Roj Girasun, co-founder of RAWEST, an independent research organization based in Diyarbakir. The PUK and the PKK enjoyed close ties until the militants kidnapped three senior Turkish intelligence officials in PUK-controlled territory in 2017. Turkey blamed the PUK, imposing a crippling flight ban to Sulaymaniyah which lasted till 2019.
Turkey’s threat to starve the Iraqi Kurds in the runup to the 2017 referendum have also bred a fear that has translated into greater sympathy if not outright support for the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, Girasun added.
In hindsight, the PKK’s admonitions over the timing of the 2017 referendum seem prophetic to some. The Iraqi Kurds lost virtually all the so-called disputed territories, including Kirkuk, to Iraqi forces after having waltzed into them in 2014 after the Iraqi army, fearful of Islamic State advances, fled the region. The KDP views America as the chief culprit for having sat on its hands in 2017, turning a deaf ear to Erbil’s calls as Iraqi forces and Iran-backed militias overran peshmerga positions following the referendum.
Bilal Wahab, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, said, “In the KDP’s calculus, the PKK threat is greater than Turkey’s military operations. The KDP feels threatened by PKK’s model, reputation and ability to recruit the sympathy of Iraqi Kurds.” The PKK has already made inroads in places like Sinjar, home to Iraq’s beleaguered Yazidi minority, which was rescued in August 2015 from near annihilation by the Islamic State when the PKK intervened, Wahab added.
In truth, however, there is little the Iraqi Kurds can do anyway to keep Turkish forces out, not least because of the KRG’s huge economic dependency on Turkey, which is the main export outlet for its oil. The other reason is the policy of the United States, Yilmaz said. “So long as America and all other Western actors continue to turn a blind eye to Turkey’s military operations in Iraqi Kurdistan and indeed view them as legitimate on the grounds that the PKK is a ‘terrorist’ organization, the KRG cannot be expected to act differently,” she said.
The impact is undeniable. The PKK is facing what many say is its gravest setbacks to date in a war that most have long agreed could not be won by either side.
“Gerilla TV,” an online site run by the PKK’s military wing, routinely posts videos of what it says are its fighters blowing up Turkish soldiers and their equipment. Privately, rebel sources acknowledge that their backs are against the wall both in Iraq and in Turkey, where Kurdish politicians and activists have been prosecuted and jailed by the thousands since the collapse of the peace process.
“In terms of the armed struggle, the PKK is highly constricted in Turkey, where the Turkish military really took the offensive after the urban battles of 2015-2016,” said Aliza Marcus, author of “Blood and Belief,” a widely acclaimed profile of Ocalan and his fighters. She was referring to the PKK’s ill-fated insurrection in towns and cities in the mainly Kurdish southeast region, which was bloodily suppressed by Turkish forces.
But it's Turkey’s recent deployment of its locally manufactured armed and surveillance drones that’s had a game-changing effect. “For the first time the PKK is facing, and has faced for over a year now, almost nonstop air attacks and targeted assassinations of senior cadres. And all this is happening in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the group used to operate essentially a semi-autonomous zone that it used for military and ideological training, meetings with supporters, journalists and Kurdish officials, for example, and other activities, like cultural things, all of which primarily went to support the group's struggle in Turkey,” Marcus said.
“Basically, Turkey's new offensive, or not so new now, has very much limited the PKK's ability to do the sorts of things that raised its public profile, that helped motivate new recruits, and that allowed it to operate semi-freely in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. This is not to say the group is near defeat — it's not at all. It's just not able to have the same impact as it once did,” Marcus added.
On June 6, Turkey’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, claimed that 18,140 “terrorists” had been “neutralized” since July 2015. Akar said 352 of that total had been killed in Syria and Iraq since April 23. That is when Turkey launched its latest cross-border offensive against the PKK. While the hawkish interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, claimed in April that 462 of those killed were “high level” commanders, the figures are likely exaggerated.
However, the PKK’s own list of the fallen suggest that mid-level and leadership cadres are being targeted.
Among the PKK’s most notable losses in recent months is Noureddine Sofi, one of the most senior ranking Syrian Kurds in the organization. The PKK denied his death, first reported in May, but Western and Iraqi Kurdish officials told Al-Monitor that the Turkish claim was accurate.
As Turkey penetrates ever deeper into Iraqi Kurdistan, cutting off PKK forces in their headquarters in Qandil on the Iranian border from their bases farther west and south, the rebels are forced to move into areas physically controlled by the KDP, rendering a clash between the sides inevitable.
The conflict has altered PKK rebels’ way of life in the mountains, which the group had long said “cannot be defined by the enemy,” according to Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink. She spent a year embedded with the PKK, chronicled in fascinating detail in her recently published “This Fire Never Dies.”
“When I was there in 2016 and 2017 there were not many armed drones yet and that activity has increased very much since. People may see the mountains as a hideout for the PKK but it’s really where they live. The mountains are the PKK’s home and not the army’s home so that is their advantage,” Geerdink told Al-Monitor.
“Of course, the armed drones have changed things a lot. It affects the way they move. Turkey knows what kind of cars they use and it's cutting down trees, which makes it harder for them to hide because trees protect them from being detected by drones,” she said.
“The Turkish army and the peshmerga are advancing into territories that have been the home of the PKK for a long, long time,” Geerdink added.
A senior KDP official countered that the PKK had moved into areas vacated by the KRG’s peshmerga forces when IS invaded in 2014. “That is one of the core problems. They have no right to be there,” the official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor.
Much like Ankara, Baghdad is likely more than happy to see the KRG try to manage the scratchy relationships with Ankara and the PKK, as the Iraqi central government bolsters its hand in its own disputes with Erbil over sharing oil revenues and controlling northern Iraq’s borders with Turkey and Iran.
Wahab said, “I don’t see Baghdad getting involved much, it has little incentive to alleviate KRG’s pains. The [Iran-backed] militias may deploy more symbolic attacks on the Turkish military to make up for lost ground with the Iraqi public attitude, but not enough to be meaningfully helpful to the PKK.” He was referring to an April attack against Turkish forces in Bashiqa northeast of the city of Mosul that was thought to have been carried out by Iranian-supported Shiite militias.
The PKK’s Karayilan said in a recent interview on the pro-PKK Sterk news channel that Erdogan had sent a message to the PKK calling on the rebels to institute a cease-fire in Turkey and saying they were “free to do whatever you like in the other parts of Kurdistan.” Karayilan described the message delivered through a group of unidentified individuals as “the enemy’s ruse” aimed at getting the PKK and the KDP to fight each other.
Sources with knowledge of the affair said the people involved were a Kurdish tribal leader from Turkey’s Sirnak province on the Iraqi border, a female Kurdish member of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and an Iraqi Kurd from the PUK. “They told the PKK that if they ended their armed fight inside Turkey and withdrew all their fighters from Turkish soil, Turkey would end the operations in Iraqi Kurdistan,” one of the sources claimed.
The same source added that the PKK responded by saying Ocalan, who has been denied access to his lawyers and his family at his island prison for more than two years, should be the one to make the call. Ankara reportedly refused, saying, “You don’t listen to Ocalan.” If the account of the alleged encounter is accurate, this reflects Erdogan’s fury with the imprisoned Kurdish leader. Ocalan is said to have balked at demands that he unequivocally order the Kurds not to back the opposition in the 2019 municipal election redo for Istanbul. The Turkish president is said to have blamed Ocalan for the AKP's even bigger defeat in the second vote, which left Istanbul in the main opposition party’s hands.
PUK officials did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment.
Some hope that Erdogan’s fading poll numbers will propel him toward Ocalan once again.
But there are no signs of a thaw. “I'm sure the PKK would like nothing better than to return to peace talks, but that chance has long gone,” Marcus said.
If anything, Erdogan appears bent on escalating and expanding the war.