Turkish airstrikes rile Iraqi street

Turkey's continuing airstrikes and other military aggression in northern Iraq are increasing tensions and expanding instability in the region.

al-monitor Iraqi Kurds, some of them wearing protective masks due to COVID-19, march during a demonstration to denounce the Turkish assault in northern Iraq, in Sulaimaniyah, in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, on June 18, 2020. Photo by SHWAN MOHAMMED/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

iraqi central government, ypg, pkk, krg, erbil, sinjar, airstrike, drones, turkish intervention, turkish influence in the middle east

Aug 28, 2020

Turkey resumed airstrikes on the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar in northern Iraq on Aug. 25 after first attacking the area in mid-June. Turkish airstrikes have been going on for months in other parts of Iraq’s Kurdistan. 

The Turkish drone struck an Iraqi border guard convoy in the Bradost area, north of Erbil. The strike that killed two senior officers was part of Turkish operations by land and air against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in parts of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Following the incident, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Iraq Fatih Yildiz Aug. 12, calling the strike an act of aggression and a violation of the country’s sovereignty. The Iraqi government canceled the Turkish defense minister’s visit to Baghdad and other scheduled visits by Turkish officials to Iraq.

The Turkish airstrikes have raised great concerns inside and outside of Iraq, as Iraq is already suffering from a lack of security and stability.

The federal government's silence on the repeated Turkish attacks is increasingly angering the Iraqi street, and dozens of Iraqis have held multiple rallies in front of Turkey's embassy in Baghdad Aug. 13 and in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

In the Zakho district of Dohuk governorate in northern Iraq Aug. 19, mass demonstrations erupted against the repeated Turkish bombing of the district's villages and countryside. They asked that the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing be closed and for Turkish trucks to be banned from entering the province. The protesters burned tires and clashed with Kurdish security forces, resulting in the injury of at least 11 civilians.

In an effort to reduce the tension, the United States suggested Aug. 25 that Baghdad, Erbil and Ankara cooperate to clear the region and especially Sinjar of armed militias. The United States offered to help mediate between the three parties. 

“If you could have the Kurdistan Regional Government, the federal government in Baghdad and Turkey working together with advice and support from the United States and other coalition countries, you could see where maybe a place like Sinjar could be cleared out of militias,” said US State Department's Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood, specifically mentioning the PKK and adding, “You could put a civilian administration in there that would work for the people and be accepted by the people so that Yazidi [displaced persons], victims of genocide could actually go home, which they can’t do safely and voluntarily right now.”

 Hood revealed that the United States is “talking to all parties about this at a high level.”

The KRG Interior Ministry had previously demanded that the PKK move its military operations out of Kurdistan. In an Aug. 11 statement on the recent Turkish attack, it reiterated that the PKK and Turkey must take their dispute out of the Iraqi and Northern Iraqi territories and stressed the need to spare citizens the costs of such conflicts. Ankara has breached international law, including Articles 1, 2 and 3 of the UN Charter, which require that all states respect the sovereignty of other states.

Commenting on the reasons Iraq cannot put a stop to attacks by both Turkey and Iran, Iraqi parliament member Nada Shaker told Al-Monitor that when a state grows weaker, neighboring countries ravish it, and this is what is happening with Iraq.  She noted, “Iraq’s weakness, particularly under the two previous governments, left the country in major distress, permitting Turkish and Iranian planes to comfortably strike parts of the country without a response commensurate with the continuous attacks.”

Shaker called on the Iraqi government to withdraw its ambassadors from countries that violate Iraqi sovereignty and expel their ambassadors. She explained that Iraqi politicians’ ties to foreign countries prevent the enactment of strict measures to protect the state.

The violence has added to Iraq’s security, political and economic crises. The country faces surging terrorist attacks by Islamic State militants in the north, the coronavirus outbreak, the decline in oil prices and the protests that erupted in October.

Both the KRG and the central Iraqi government are too weak to file a complaint against Ankara with the United Nations. Ankara's multiple political connections in Iraq stand with Turkey against the PKK, including the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which enjoys political and economic relations with Turkey. The party leads the KRG and is more hostile to the PKK than any other Kurdish party.

There are also economic considerations tying the KDP and Ankara together. Erbil does not want to lose its profitable trade relations with Turkey, even in light of Turkey's most aggressive stances toward the Kurdistan region and the Kurds in the region.

Hanaa Riyad, a journalist from Baghdad, told Al-Monitor it is imperative that the Iraqi government and KRG boycott Turkey economically and that they protest the repeated Turkish violations to the UN.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls Sulaimaniyah, sympathizes with the PKK more than the KDP. The PUK itself faces the same criticisms regarding the Iranian attacks in Sulaimaniyah.

Commenting on the Iranian and Turkish violations, top PUK official Hawkar al-Jaff told Al-Monitor that the Iranian violations are different from the Turkish ones, as Iran does not have permanent camps or forces equipped with heavy weapons and ammunition inside Kurdistan, as Turkey does. Also, the Iranian aircrafts are not striking Sulaimaniyah daily and heavily, as Turkey does in Erbil and Dohuk, which the KDP controls.

He said that Turkey is present on a near daily basis in the Kurdish airspace and on the ground. Iran is only bombing remote mountainous areas, away from population centers, as it goes after the Kurdish opposition.

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