BAGHDAD — Turkish airstrikes on the Iraqi governorates of Sinjar and Makhmour on Dec. 13 brought the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) back to the fore, raising questions about the future of relations in the region, especially if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan carries out his threat to launch a ground incursion into Iraq to fight the PKK.
Ankara labels the PKK a “terrorist organization,” and, per an agreement signed under the regime of Saddam Hussein, is allowed to pursue the PKK within 40 kilometers into the Iraqi border.
Yet, every time Turkey carries out a military action in Iraq, the Iraqi government denounces it. On Dec. 14, the Iraqi government summoned the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad and handed him a letter of protest over “frequent violations” of Iraqi airspace.
Turkey’s airstrikes in northern Iraq coincided with Erdogan’s threat to launch an operation targeting the “Kurdish units” backed by Washington in northeastern Syria. Before this, Turkey announced Iran's approval of this move, suggesting either a deal between Iran, Russia and Turkey to share influence east of the Euphrates, or a Russian attempt to implicate Turkey in a deeper conflict with Washington.
Moscow, meanwhile, aims to barter with Turkey: a Turkish incursion east of the Euphrates in exchange for Ankara relinquishing some terms of the Sochi agreement, allowing the Syrian regime forces to spread in Idlib. To achieve these aims, Ankara needs to secure its border with Iraq, including in Sinjar, where both the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People's Protection Units (YPG) operate. Turkey considers the YPG and SDF extensions of the PKK.
On Dec. 16, the PKK threatened to carry out an operation inside Turkish territories in retaliation for the Turkish airstrikes, which killed eight PKK members. “The Turkish bombing comes within the framework of a Turkish plan to expand its influence in Syria and Iraq," PKK member Kawa Shimkhos said in a statement on the party's website. "The Turkish reinforcements on Syrian territory coincided with the bombing of northern Iraq."
It is unknown whether the Turkish moves against the PKK and its loyal factions in Syria will lead to conflict with US forces. The tension between the two NATO members is due to Turkey’s belief that Washington will not implement the terms of the Manbij agreement signed in June. The agreement called for the exit of the YPG and the SDF from Manbij, but this has yet to be achieved within the allotted six months of the agreement.
After Turkey's escalation in Iraq and Syria against the PKK and its affiliated factions, Turkey could receive major concessions from Washington. In return for not invading Iraq, Turkey could receive help in fighting the PKK and in implementing the Manbij road map to remove the YPG and to establish a local administration.
But it is difficult for the United States to make concessions to the Turks. This was evident in Washington's announcement that it would arm the Kurdish factions and set up monitoring posts to prevent friction with Turkish forces. Instead, Turkey could opt to use the Russians and Iranians in carrying out its plan, allowing them to expand inside Idlib.
President Donald Trump's decision on Dec. 20 to gradually withdraw US troops from Syria and to continue to work with partners to confront the Islamic State can be interpreted as a tactical move by Washington to avoid any clashes with Turkey in its potential invasion east of the Euphrates. US forces prefer withdrawal to having to adopt a bystander position in any confrontation between the Turkish army and the US-backed Kurdish factions. The Trump administration may use political and economic pressure to delay any Turkish operation in order to reach a comprehensive Syrian settlement that would include Syrian Kurdistan.
Otherwise, if Kurdish forces withdraw from Syria, they will head toward Iraq, specifically to areas under PKK influence. Yet the PKK is expected to face continuous Turkish military operations, something feared by Arab and Kurdish parties.
Iraqi Kurdish parliamentarian Kawa Mohammed believes the violation of Iraqi sovereignty should be addressed by all official institutions in the country to prevent massacres by Turkish raids against civilians.
“If this goes on, in light of no solution to this region, especially at the governmental level, Yazidis would be ousted from their historic areas,” he told Al-Monitor. “Minorities and their regions should not bear the brunt of regional and internal conflicts. This threatens international peace and stability.”
It seems that the Turkish government is determined to annihilate its historical opponents across Kurdish territories in Iraq and Syria, especially after the PKK secured, for the first time, a foothold in Iraq’s Sinjar, away from the Qandil Mountains and close to the Turkish border. This coincides with a dramatic shift in the situation in Syria, where many Kurdish factions emerged that could obtain autonomy in Syria.
Ankara adamantly refuses Kurdish self-rule in Syrian Kurdistan, even if attaining this requires keeping the Bashar al-Assad regime in power. At a Dec. 16 press conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu asserted that his country may cooperate with Assad if he is re-elected in democratic and credible elections held under the auspices of the United Nations.
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