PKK Presence in Iraq and Turkey’s Fight Against Terrorism
Terrorist PKK activity has increased observably in the region following the gains made by its extension, the PYD, after the events of 2011 in Syria. The terrorist organisation PKK intensified its activities within Turkey, drawing on the advantage lent to it by the PYD, which enjoyed international support for "combating the terrorist ISIS organisation”. In return, Turkey’s fight against terrorism that has been ongoing for years acquired a new dimension with Operation Euphrates Shield that began on August 24th 2016 and ended on March 29th 2017. The clearing out of ISIS from the Azez-Al Bab-Jarabulus triangle in Syria was Turkey’s first move for field control against the terrorist corridor to its south. In this sense, there was a clear change in Turkey’s preferred course of action for combating terrorism. In addition, the Turkish Armed Forces ran an operation abroad jointly with foreign fighters for the first time ad diversified its means for fighting terrorism. Operation Olive Branch, which began on January 20th 018 and ended on March 18th against the terrorist PKK/YPG organisation based in Afrin in northern Syria was ran in a similar manner and control of the region was achieved.
However, during this process, the PKK has made efforts to increase its activities and widen its field for manoeuvre in Iraq. As a result of the instability and power vacuum created in Iraq with ISIS taking over Mosul in June 2014, the PKK has become active in the territory controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG), along a line running from Sinjar at the north western corner of Iraq to Khanaqin to the east of Baghdad. It is known that the PKK has taken up positions in Sinjar, Kirkuk and its environs, as well as Tuz Khurmatu and Khanaqin, on the pretext of fighting ISIS. In fact, in January 2015, the PKK announced that it was establishing a canton in Sinjar and by installing an organisation called the Sinjar Construction Council, took de facto control of the local administration. The PKK’s political wing in Iraq, Tevgera Azadi (Kurdistan Free Society Movement) held a congress in Kirkuk in January 2016 dubbed the First Kirkuk Regional Conference and drew up a road map for an autonomous administration in Kirkuk. The PKK went as far as setting up an autonomous government council of 25 members. The PKK also established an office in the Dakuk district of Kirkuk. Despite such activities by the PKK in Iraq, the Iraqi government and state bodies have yet to take any action against the PKK. Instead of taking any steps against the PKK, the Iraqi government has been giving logistical, material and military support to the YBS (Sinjar Resistance Units) that was set up for the Yazidis in Sinjar under the leadership of the PKK. It is known that the YBS is a part of the Hashdi Shaabi organisation of mainly Shiite militia, which has now become an official body with the a decision of the Iraqi Cabinet of Ministers. It would not be wrong to say that the Iraqi government has been turning a blind eye towards the PKK and even indirectly aiding it.
However, the PKK threat in Iraq is becoming increasingly uncontrollable. In a statement he made on his return journey from the G20 Summit in China, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan clearly expressed that the PKK is trying to lodge itself in Iraq, especially in the Mosul region and poses a threat to Tal Afar and the Turkmen from there. Despite objections from the USA and Europe, Turkey has shown its determination to prevent the terrorist corridor along its border and thus to maintain its national security and this was clearly expressed in the statement released after the National Security Council meeting held on March 28th 28 Mart 2018. In this statement measures against the actions of artificially created terrorist organisations such as the PKK/PYD-YPG, ISIS, FETO/PDY within Turkey were emphasised and it was underlined that operations against terrorist threats across the border would continue.
The course of developments shows that the threat posed by PKK presence in Iraq is growing. It is telling that while the Iraqi government has seen negotiated Turkish military presence at the Bashika camp for training local forces against ISIS as a threat, it is quiet when in comes to PKK activities in Iraq. As it has clearly displayed in Sinjar and Kirkuk, the PKK is openly targeting Iraqi territory. The Turkmen in Tal Afar and Kirkuk are directly threatened by PKK presence in Sinjar. In recent fighting in Tuz Khurmatu, PKK elements were observed to have targeted Turkmen civilians.
As expressed in the National Security Council statement, PKK presence in the northern Uraqi region of Qandil, as well as its presence in Mosul’s Sinjar district are direct threats to Turkey. Unless this threat is diffused by the Iraqi state, an operation against Sinjar, such as operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch in Syria, is likely. Recently, events centred on Sinjar have become one of the main agenda items of regional and global politics. At this point, it would be beneficial to take up the background of the Sinjar issue and to analyse its influence on the regional balance and Turkey’s foreign policy.
Background of the Sinjar Issue
Sinjar is a district of Iraq’s second largest province Mosul and is on the border with Syria. Populated mainly by the Iraqi Yazidis, Sinjar came under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) after the US occupation in 2003. It later came under the scope of article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution of 2005 and became one of the disputed regions. Despite being officially administrated by the Iraqi central government, Sinjar came under the de facto control of the IKRG with the deployment of the Peshmerga and becae a region where Mesoud Barzani’s KDP is especially active. Thus the KDP became the dominant political force all along the border with Turkey, from Iran to Syria. However, with ISIS capturing Mosul in June 2014 and advancing towards Sinjar in August 2014, the Peshmerga retreated, leaving ISIS in control of Sinjar. This led to the terrorist PKK elements in Qandil and Mahmur, as well as members of the YPG, the Syrian arm of the PYD being deployed in Sinjar. While the KDP opened a corridor for terrorist PKK members travelling from Qandil and Mahmur to Sinjar, the PYD opened a corridor to Sinjar from Qamishli in Syria, which it controlled, to allow the Yazidis to flee from Sinjar to Syria. This made the PKK the main actor in the Sinjar region and it settled in Mount Sinjar. The PKK formed the armed YBS organisation out of the Yazidis who fled Sinjar and became active in the area from the north of Sinjar to the border with Turkey and Syria. With the control of this territory, a corridor emerged linking Qandil, the centre of the PKK with the PYD/YPG, the PKK organisations in northern Syria. The PKK used ISIS as an important means of securing control of Sinjar and took advantage of the power vacuum in the region under the pretext of combating ISIS.
The PKK’s New Strategy in Iraq: Sinjar
In November 2015, Sinjar was freed from ISIS by an operation of the Peshmerga carried out with US aerial support and the operation also included PKK and the PKK’s Yazidi organisation YBS elements. In January 2015, the PKK announced that it was establishing a canton in Sinjar and by installing an organisation called the Sinjar Construction Council, took de facto control of the local administration. Thus a two headed administrative structure emerged is Sinjar, one controlled by the PKK and the other by the KDP. The Hashdi Shaabi, which is an umbrella organisation for the Iraqi central government and Shiite militia carried out a joint operation with the YBS to take control of the villages in outlying parts of Sinjar. That Kasım Suleymani, commander of the Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and some other Iranian soldiers participated in this operation put the Hashdi Shaabi, Iran and PKK/YPG triangle under the spotlight. After the Hashdi Shaabi’s operation, the Iraqi central government assigned new officials to administrative units in Sinjar and the former district governor, who acted along with the KDP, was banned from entering Sinjar. Fahad Hamid became the governor of Sinjar, while Hudeda Cuke became the director of the township of Sinuna that is attached to Sinjar. Hudeda Cuke had been a member of the PKK’s Sinjar Construction Council that was formed by the PKK until 2016, later joined the Hashdi Shaabi and became the director of the township of Sinuna in 2017. This is tangible evidence of the cooperation between the Iraqi central government, the Hashdi Shaabi in particular, and the YBS. It is known that some armed members of the YBS are directly paid salaries by the Iraqi government and the Hashdi Shaabi.
Disturbed by PKK activities in Sinjar and actions of the Hashdi Shaabi, Turkey has warned the Iraqi central government many times. In order to underscore its determination to fight terrorism in the region, Turkey launched air attacks against PKK positions in Sinjar in April 2017 and signalled that a land operation would be undertaken if necessary. The Turkish and Iraqi governments once more confronted one another with Turkey’s aerial operation against Sinjar, that coming after problems in bilateral ties due to the Bashika camp in Mosul and operations launched by Turkey against the PKK in northern Iraq. However, following IKRG President Barzani’s statement that the IKRG and disputed zones would hold a referendum on independence in June 2017, the wind changed and the cold relationship between Turkey and Iraq transformed into cooperation. Turkish and Iraqi armed forces organised a joint exercise around the Habur Border Crossing and scenarios for a joint operation against Sinjar began to be voiced.
Turkey’s threat perception of PKK activity in Iraq has risen not just because of Sinjar but because of the PKK’s activities in Kirkuk, Sulaymaniyah and their environs and its attacks against the Turkmen. Therefore, statements by Turkish officials have called on Iraq to remove PKK presence from its territory and that otherwise Turkey would launch operations against the PKK in Iraq, as it did in Syria. In a decision taken on March 11th 2018, the Mosul Provincial Council demanded the PKK leave Sinjar. The Iraqi central government also sent a message to the PKK demanding that they turn over the territory they control in Sinjar to Iraqi security forces. In a statement issued on March 28th 2018, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said that the presence of the PKK in Sinjar poses a threat to Turkey and that they would like to see the PKK withdraw from the region. On March 23rd 2018, reports began to emerge of the PKK’s withdrawal from Sinjar, while forces of the Iraqi Army began to take positions in and around Sinjar. However, it would be mistaken to say that PKK elements have completely left Sinjar. It is known that some PKK elements are still settled in Sinjar, while organisations associated with the PKK continue their activities in the district. While mindful of the threat from Sinjar, Turkey began a large operation to clear out PKK camps from northern Iraq and the main target was selected as Qandil, known as the centre of the PKK, that is 90 kilometres away from the Turkish border. Since March 2018, the Turkish Armed Forces have been carrying out intensive operations in northern Iraq. While there will be regional and periodic changes, these operations are expected to continue. The presence of the PKK in te region poses problems both for Turkey and for other actors in the region. It can be said that the PKK’s presence in Iraq hurts the Kurds in Iraq, resulting in divisions among them. The PKK cooperates with Jalal Talabani’S PUK and the Goran Movement that split off from the PUK, to which it is ideologically and politically closer and confronts the KDP. It is also winning adherents within new political movements such as the New Generation Movement, leading to more problems. These issues have been cementing the existing divisions within the IKRG and contributing to the political infighting.
The PKK presence in Iraq is not just a military threat. It is also a threat to the territorial integrity and political unity of Iraq. The PKK appearing in civilian settlements and trying to gain a following among civilians not only puts pressure on and threatens the people of Iraq, but also violates the sovereignty of Iraq. What is at stake is an armed terrorist organisation trying to establish control in Iraqi settlements and going as far as establishing administrative structures. Therefore all parties involved in the issue, with the power to affect it or be affected by it should act rationally and take long term and permanent political steps. In this light, the coordination and cooperation between Turkey and Iraq in the coming period will be crucial. Turkey has voiced its support for the territorial integrity and political unity of Iraq and has clearly stated that it will always side with Iraq in combating ISIS. On the other hand, as seen in the operation in Jarabulus, Turkey will not allow any structure to emerge in the region that will threaten its national security, be it ISIS or the PKK. Ensuring regional stability is to the benefit of the countries in the region and is a cornerstone of Turkey’s foreign policy. To ensure stability, one of the most important tasks is to cleanse the region of terrorist organisations such as the PKK and ISIS. The PKK threatens Iraq’s territorial integrity, political unity and sovereignty and has become an open threat to the peoples of the region. It is to the benefit of all concerned for this threat to be neutralised.