How will Sinjar crisis end as tensions mount between Baghdad, Ankara?

Ankara's insistence on combating the Kurdistan Workers Party may push Baghdad to take the lead on cleansing northern Iraq of the Kurdish militia, a scenario that presents a new internal crisis in Iraq's Kurdistan Region.

al-monitor Kurdish peshmerga fighters stand on an outpost at a defensive point near Sinjar, Iraq, June 1, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis.

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iraqi-syrian border, turkish-iraqi relations, kurds in iraq, sinjar, recep tayyip erdogan, pkk, turkish military

Apr 9, 2018

BAGHDAD — Turkish troops in northern Iraq have begun building military bases to confront the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), according to an April 3 report by Al-Hurra TV that included video footage of construction. This comes after Turkish troops reportedly advanced about 6 miles into Iraqi territory last month in order to fight the PKK in the northern regions of Iraq.

On March 29, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talked about eliminating the PKK fighters in the Iraqi city of Sinjar during a conference held by the Justice and Development Party in Ankara, despite the Turkish government’s earlier pledge to respect Iraqi sovereignty.

Erdogan also announced that Turkey “is gearing up to start cleansing Ain al-Arab [which the Kurds call Kobani], Tell Abyad, Ras al-Ain and Hasakah in Syria from terrorist elements and getting ready to enter Sinjar at any moment.”

Meanwhile, a high-level Iraqi delegation visited the Turkish capital to hold talks on the fight with the PKK, according to Jabbar al-Yawar the secretary-general of the peshmerga forces.

“The Iraqi delegation is trying to reach diplomatic solutions with the Turkish side to spare the region the scourge of military battles. The Sinjar crisis is the prerogative of the Baghdad-based central government that has sent the 15th Brigade there, fearing any interference on the part of the Turkish forces. We believe that the PKK problem must be dealt with comprehensively through Iraqi-Turkish coordination,” Yawar told Al-Monitor.

Yawar acknowledged the presence of PKK forces in the Qandil Mountains of the Kurdistan Region and some areas of Ninevah and Syrian Kurdistan.

“The peshmerga will not intervene in this crisis related to Iraqi sovereignty, especially after it withdrew from Sinjar following its liberation from the Islamic State,” he said.

Yawar ruled out any period of relative calm on the Iraqi-Syrian border before the end of the civil war in Syria. “Sinjar represents a triangle on the border between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. It is only normal for many armed factions to move in this area, taking advantage of the mountainous hinterlands,” he said.

Iraq’s concerns about Turkish threats are not limited to officials in the Kurdistan Region only. Turkmen member of parliament Jassem Mohammed Jaafar, a leader in the ruling Dawa Party in Iraq, said, “The Turkish threats are aimed at exerting pressure on the Iraqi side to speed up the process of exerting its control over Sinjar and to pressure Erbil to cut off support and contact with the PKK.”

Jaafar told Al-Monitor, “The Turkish forces have a lot to lose if they carry out a military operation in Mount Sinjar, giving the area’s rugged nature, located at hundreds of kilometers from the Turkish border. The Turkish forces will have to face the Iraqi security forces deployed there.”

He added, “Yet the Iraqi government is working on containing the crisis, and we believe the statements of Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim about respecting Iraq's sovereignty [are genuine]."

Speaking at a press conference April 3, a member of parliament for Sinjar, Vian Dakhil, referenced a statement signed by a group of Iraqi lawmakers condemning Erdogan's threats to enter Sinjar. “We condemn and denounce the statements of the Turkish president threatening a military intervention in Sinjar. This violates all international laws and diplomatic norms," she noted.

Dakhil called on the Iraqi government to take all “necessary measures to preserve the sovereignty of Iraq and the security of its borders and its citizens.” She urged the government not “to coordinate with the Turkish side, away from the legislative authority in relations to the sovereignty and security of Iraq and to work on expelling PKK elements so as to avoid Sinjar becoming an international battlefield for neighboring countries. [The government] has to discredit all justifications by neighboring countries seeking to interfere in Iraq's domestic affairs.”

Dakhil also said that Iraqi parliament Speaker Salim al-Jabouri had repeatedly rejected to include the Sinjar crisis on the parliament’s agenda, citing only government measures, referring to his bias toward Ankara.

Nevertheless, the situation in Sinjar appears to be different from what the Kurds are witnessing in Afrin and the rest of the Kurdish areas in Syria. This disparity is mainly due to the American presence in Iraq, Washington’s good relations with Baghdad and the large amount of trade between Iraq and Turkey. Ankara, however, is playing at brinkmanship in a bid to get rid of the PKK, especially since it has already started military operations on the ground in Syria.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis said March 27 that the presence of the PKK in Iraq’s Sinjar is a threat to Turkey, and the United States is "intending to see [the PKK] pull out of the Sinjar area.”

According to the US State Department, Tina Kaidanow, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, visited Turkey and Iraq March 28-April 3.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a press statement that the United States “understands the Turkish concerns about the PKK presence in the Kurdistan region and Iraq.”

Nauert stressed that any Turkish military operation in Sinjar must be with the approval of Iraq and in coordination with the Iraqi government.

As things stand now, there are two scenarios for Sinjar’s crisis. The first is the least likely: Turkey would launch a military operation in the Iraqi territories that might reach the Kurdish areas, namely Dahuk. However, this would affect bilateral relations in light of Baghdad’s rejection of the scenario and its likely economic repercussions. Ankara could instead opt for the second scenario: letting the Iraqi government eliminate the PKK. This means airstrikes and land operations in the Kurdistan Region, which is a big concern for the Iraqi Kurdish parties.

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