Is Iraqi Kurdistan linked to the PKK

Domestic conflicts

Gülistan Gürbey

Dr. Gülistan Gürbey is a qualified political scientist and lecturer at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science at the Free University of Berlin. Her main research interests are defective democracies, de facto states, peace and conflict studies, international minority protection. The regional focus is the Middle East with a focus on Turkey, Kurdistan and Cyprus. Email: [email protected]

Turkey sees the regional rise of the Kurds as a massive security threat. After a phase of involvement and negotiation, in 2015 Ankara again embarked on a course of military containment of Kurdish emancipation and autonomy efforts within Turkey, northern Iraq and northern Syria.

Sep 25, 2017: After the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, a Kurd shows the colored finger he used to vote. (& copy picture-alliance)

The Turkish leadership under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan regards the regional upswing of the Kurds in general and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) in particular with suspicion. Ankara sees its most important Kurdish political goal - the prevention of an independent Kurdish state - at risk. Political containment and military liquidation of the PKK is seen as the key to achieving this goal. The PKK has meanwhile become a political force that is present not only in the "mountains" in south-east Turkey and northern Iraq, but also in the "cities" and has a social base that should not be underestimated. It also enjoys strong support among the Kurds in Syria and in the diaspora in Europe. The PKK operates from its main bases, which are mainly located in the Kandil Mountains in Kurdish northern Iraq. Despite more than 30 years of war, Turkey failed to liquidate the PKK, not even after its chairman Abdullah Öcalan was arrested in February 1999.

The Turkish government is trying to achieve its goals with a dual strategy that includes elements of both cooperation and confrontation. This includes, among other things, exploiting and fueling the tensions between the various groups and political factions of the Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. While there has been close cooperation between Turkey and the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq so far, the relationship with the Kurdish self-governing areas in northern Syria "Rojava" ("sunset" or "west"; German pronunciation: Roschawa) is determined by confrontation. The dominant party there, the Democratic Union (PYD), is a close ally of the PKK.

The Kurdish conflict in Turkey

After a phase of liberalization that began with the takeover of power by the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in November 2002, the Turkish government returned to a repressive Kurdish policy in early summer 2015. Their strategy of persuading the Kurds to waive further claims in return for limited concessions (e.g. use of the Kurdish language in election campaigns, approval of private television and radio broadcasts, language courses and Kurdish naming) had failed. The Kurdish parties and civil society organizations stuck to their demand to include federal or autonomous forms of self-government and the right to education in the Kurdish language in a new constitution.

The failure of the peace talks that began in 2012 also had to do with the military successes of the Kurdish associations led by the PYD and the PKK in Syria and northern Iraq. All Kurdish parties in Turkey felt strengthened and encouraged to hold on to their demands. After the surprising election success of the moderate Kurdish HDP (Democratic Party of the Peoples) in the parliamentary elections in June 2015, Erdoğan saw his political skins swim away. Despite the defamation campaign, the HDP jumped the 10 percent hurdle and made it into parliament straight away. In addition, the AKP missed an absolute parliamentary majority. This put their goal of establishing a presidential system in jeopardy.

Erdoğan responded with a sudden change of strategy. On the one hand, the PKK, as a "terrorist organization", was to be fought primarily militarily and, on the other hand, the HDP, as the alleged political arm of the PKK, should be discredited and weakened. The "war on terror" began. The Turkish army has been taking massive action against the PKK strongholds in the south-east of the country since August 2015. PKK positions in northern Iraq and northern Syria have also been and are being bombed.

Turkey - terrorist attacks in 2016 and 2017
Here you can find the map as a high-resolution PDF file License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (mr-kartographie, Gotha 2018)

The PKK insisted on carrying the war to the cities of Sirnak, Cizre, Yüksekova, Mardin, Hakkari and Diyarbakır in the southeast, with the help of its youth organization YDG-H [1], where support for them is particularly high. With this guerrilla strategy, the PKK tried to force the government to accept the self-government proclaimed in several areas in the southeast. But this calculation did not work out. The state struck back with excessive force: the affected cities and provinces (more than 30) were bombed for months with special forces, tanks and snipers, many places were declared special security regions, a total curfew was imposed and media access was cut off.

As a result of the ruthless "city war" from August 2015 to May 2016, numerous civilians, mainly by snipers, were killed, including children, women and the elderly. More than 400,000 Kurds have been internally displaced in Turkey. Their livelihoods as well as numerous, partly historic city districts, including the historic old town of Diyarbakır, were completely destroyed. In addition, the state repression increased not only against the PKK, but also against the HDP and its numerous mayors, the Kurdish press and other media, and against civil society organizations.

With the escalation of violence, the HDP in particular got between the fronts and, in fact, politically sidelined. On May 20, 2016, the Turkish parliament, with the support of the Kemalist CHP (Republican People's Party) and the ultra-nationalist MHP (Nationalist Action Party), lifted the immunity of MPs. After all, the state of emergency that continues to this day, which was imposed after the failed military coup on June 15, 2016, provided the means for a decree to carry out comprehensive cleansing across the entire political and civil society spectrum of the Kurds. Numerous Kurdish media, newspapers and institutions were banned by decree from the end of summer 2016, and at the beginning of November 2016 party leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag and eleven other members of the HDP were arrested for "supporting terrorism" and criminal proceedings opened. The Turkish public prosecutor's office demands 142 years imprisonment for Demirtas and 83 years for Yüksekdag.

In September 2016, over 80 mayors, thousands of local leaders and members of the HDP and its local sister party DBP (Party of Democratic Regions) were imprisoned in more than two dozen cities and municipalities, most of which were Kurdish. The 82 local governments affected, including Diyarbakır, Mardin, Van, were placed under state supervision and deposed mayors were replaced by state trustees. Numerous municipal workers were also made redundant and mostly replaced by personnel close to the AKP and the Kurdish-Islamist Hüda-Par (Hür Dava Partisi / Free Cause Party).

The policy towards the Iraqi Kurdistan Autonomous Region

Since 2008, Ankara has gradually moved away from its traditional confrontational strategy of non-recognition and combating the Kurdish regional government (KRG) in northern Iraq and has adopted a cooperative approach. The close cooperation is primarily guided by security, economic and energy interests on both sides. While the close ties with the KRG Ankara allow the PKK and Iranian influence to be contained in the region, the KRG needs Turkey as a gateway to world trade and as a transit country for oil and gas supplies.

Both sides are against the PKK's presence in northern Iraq's Sinjar area and are critical of the growing Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria. Because of these common interests, the KRG has so far also tolerated the Turkish military bases as well as air strikes and military actions against PKK positions on Iraqi-Kurdish soil, which began in the 1990s. Ankara also participates in the military training of the Peshmerga.

In addition, both sides primarily have energy policy and economic interests in common. In economic terms, the Turkish government is trying, on the one hand, to diversify its energy imports in order to reduce its dependence on expensive Russian and Iranian natural gas and oil and, on the other hand, to expand its strategic position as an energy hub between the Middle East, the Caucasus and Europe. Here, Kurdish and Iraqi petroleum plays a central role, which has been flowing directly to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan via a new Kurdish pipeline since January 2014. An energy deal signed with Turkey in November 2013 gives the KRG the opportunity to deliver the crude oil and natural gas produced in the disputed areas around Kirkuk to other countries bypassing the central government in Baghdad.

The irritation was correspondingly great on the Turkish side when the KRG - despite massive warnings from Ankara - held a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25, 2017, in which 92.3% voted for independence.Turkey sees the referendum as a danger for their national security and therefore strictly rejects it. Ankara, in close coordination with the Iraqi central government and the Iranian government, threatened military retaliation and economic sanctions. The Turkish army started a military maneuver with the participation of Iraqi soldiers on the border with the Kurdish region, stopped air traffic between Turkey and Kurdistan-Iraq. Erdoğan even threatened to cut the pipeline connection. Ankara is apparently pursuing the strategic goal of bringing the former Ottoman territories in northern Iraq, including Kirkuk and Mosul, under its control as a natural sphere of influence.

The policy towards the Kurdish "Democratic Federation" Rojava in Northern Syria

At the end of January 2015, Erdoğan declared that Turkey would never accept an autonomy in Syria, as in the Kurdish northern Iraq. Ankara's strategy to achieve these goals includes supporting Islamist groups and Turkish forces operating in northern Syria within the local Turkmen minority, as well as exploiting the power-political tensions between the PYD and PKK on the one hand and the KDP led by Masoud Barzani on the other.

So far, however, the Turkish efforts to prevent the strengthening of the PYD have been largely unsuccessful. Since the summer of 2012, the PYD, together with smaller parties, has controlled and administered the so-called Democratic Federation of Rojava, which comprises the Kurdish self-governing cantons of Afrin, Kobane and Cezire. The goal of the PYD and the PKK allied with it is not the establishment of a Kurdish state in Syria, but the autonomy of the cantons as part of a new federal and democratic Syria. The PKK and PYD are trying to consolidate their supremacy even by using violence against critics and opponents and to implement their social model, which they say is based on the core elements of gender equality, ecology and grassroots democracy.

While proponents see it as an emancipatory future project for the Middle East, critics judge the grassroots democratic endeavors of the PYD / PKK as authoritarian and in the broadest sense as undemocratic and "communist". Turkey fears that a Kurdish state could emerge under the leadership of the PYD / PKK with access to the Mediterranean, which will not only fuel the Kurds' aspirations for independence and independence, but also the geopolitical framework for Turkish politics in the Middle East would fundamentally change.

In order to prevent the YPG, the military arm of the PYD, from advancing further, Erdoğan and his government have described the crossing of the Euphrates in a westerly direction as the "red line". On August 24, 2016, the Turkish military started a military offensive in the Jarablus region together with predominantly pro-Turkish and Islamist forces of the so-called Free Syrian Army under the code name "Schutzschild Euphrates" in order to establish the territorial connection between the three that the PYD was aiming for to prevent Kurdish cantons. This aim was also served by the Turkish operation in October 2017 to create a de-escalation and security zone in the Syrian province of Idlib, which was decided together with Russia and Iran at the Syria conference in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

Turkey was not only concerned with pushing back the Islamist militias, which are still strong there. At least as important was the goal of encircling the canton of Afrin, which is territorially separated from the other two Kurdish cantons, from the south and thus creating a better starting position for military intervention. On January 20, 2018, the Turkish military started, together with the militias of the Free Syrian Army it supported. a military offensive contrary to international law - cynically under the code name "Operation Olivenzweig". The relatively stable region of Afrin, which was previously spared from the war, has since become another theater of war. Although the UN Security Council called for a ceasefire for all of Syria at the end of February 2018, Turkey continued its offensive on the grounds that the offensive against what it saw as a terrorist YPG was not affected by the UN resolution.

The Turkish government justifies the military invasion of the Afrin region with reference to the threat to national security from "terrorism" (meaning PYD / YPG), the protection of the inhabitants of Afrin and the intended return of Syrian refugees from Turkey. With the military offensive, Ankara wants to establish a buffer zone in the Afrin region - similar to the one already in the region between al-Bab, Rai, Azaz and Jarablus. After the military offensive "Euphrates Shield" in August 2016, Turkey created a "de facto protectorate" there, in which families of the Turkmen minority are settled in Syria and forces that conform to Turkey are supported, and Turkish schools and shops are opened. District administrators and local administrators were also appointed.

With the capture of Afrin, the area between Jarablus, Azaz and al-Bab could be connected to Idlib and ultimately controlled and administered by Turkey. In the meantime, it is becoming more and more apparent that Turkey is striving for a long-term occupation of the conquered areas in northern Syria, in violation of international law. According to the neo-Ottoman interpretation of President Erdoğan and his government, this area could even be incorporated into Turkey in the future.


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