PKK fighters at a camp in the mountains of Kurdistan. File photo: Rudaw
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has once again stated that Turkey will conduct a joint operation with Iraq against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the country. Analysts who follow Iraqi affairs closely, however, seriously doubt this will materialize.
Cavusoglu told reporters in the past week that a joint Turkish-Iraqi operation could begin after the May elections in Iraq. “Even if the Afrin operation has not yet been completed, we have the capacity to carry out both operations simultaneously,” he said.
This isn’t the first time the Turkish foreign minister has claimed that Baghdad is willing to coordinate a military operation against the Kurdish group. Upon returning from a one-day visit to Baghdad in January, Cavusoglu said Iraq sees eye-to-eye with Turkey on the PKK’s continued presence in the Shingal region, home to the persecuted Yezidi minority.
“They [the Iraqis] told us the ‘PKK is no different from Daesh [ISIS], let’s cooperate against this threat,’” he told Hurriyet news at the time.
Despite such declarations it remains unlikely that such an operation will actually transpire in Shingal – which the federal government of Iraq seized from the autonomous Kurdistan Region on October 17, following their infamous takeover of Kirkuk the previous day – or the PKK’s main stronghold, the Qandil mountain range inside the Kurdistan Region’s recognized borders.
“A parliamentarian from Iraq’s security committee denied the comment by the Turkish foreign minister that any joint operation would take place,” Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, told Rudaw English. “He said that Turkey’s actions in Kurdistan were a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.”
Wing believes that in reality Cavusoglu’s claim might just “be for domestic consumption within Turkey.”
Although Turkey’s ties with Iraq have significantly thawed since the Kurdistan Region’s September 2017 independence referendum, which both countries vehemently condemned, Baghdad remains uncomfortable with Ankara’s military activities within Iraq’s international borders.
“Starting at the end of 2017 Ankara has stepped up its attacks upon the PKK in northern Iraq,” Wing explained. “There are now airstrikes and shelling at least once a week that have provoked the PKK to attack Turkish forces in Iraq for the first time in years.”
"Turkey is worried about the PKK’s increased role not only in Syria but places like Shingal in western Nineveh as well, so it has picked up its attacks upon the PKK in Iraq as a result,” he added.
With this as the backdrop, Cavusoglu’s “comment about a joint operation was probably to try to give some legitimacy to what Ankara was doing,” Wing concluded. “But it didn’t fly in Iraq.”
Turkey has attacked the PKK in Qandil intermittently since the 1990s but has never been able to decisively uproot them from that stronghold. When the PKK came to Shingal in force, following its rescue of thousands of Yezidis from ISIS, Ankara vowed to prevent the group from establishing what it called a “second Qandil” there. Shingal’s proximity to the Syrian border makes it an important region for the PKK to secure a foothold.
When the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was in control of Shingal before October 2017, it expressed sympathy with Ankara’s opposition to the group’s presence there. This was because the KRG, especially after it recaptured most of that region from ISIS in November 2015, viewed the group’s continued presence there as an affront to its own sovereignty and control over the region. Since withdrawing from there (and subsequently cutting off salaries to the Yazidi Peshmerga forces led by the iconic Yezidi commander Qasim Shesho), however, it has no real interest, or capability, to help facilitate a PKK withdrawal, meaning Turkey has even less leverage against the group there than it did just a couple of months ago.
Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, is also highly skeptical about the possibility of such a joint operation.
“It is very difficult to imagine coordination between the Iraqi central government and Turkey against the PKK because political conditions in Iraq are strongly unfavorable to such a development,” Orton told Rudaw English. “Many Iraqi Shia believe Turkey is behind the Islamic State [ISIS] and other jihadists, and Iran’s powerful influence has been exerted to deepen ties between Baghdad and the PKK over the last half-decade and more.”
“Turkey continually attempts to find common ground with Iran on the PKK issue, there being a superficial commonality of circumstances with the PJAK (the Kurdistan Free Life Party) insurgency, and it always ends in failure since Tehran will not give up the PKK instrument as a means of leverage over Turkey,” he elaborated. “These considerations apply to Qandil, and if anything even more strongly to Shingal, where Iran’s proxies and the PKK have reached an accord that allows them both access to the border to send resources to their forces inside Syria.”
In recent months Turkish officials have routinely conflated the PKK threat with the PJAK threat Iran has faced in a clear attempt to garner Tehran’s support against the group. A series of Turkish airstrikes last year against Mount Asos in the Kurdistan Region’s Sulaimani province may well have killed PJAK fighters based there alongside their PKK counterparts.
Last August Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talked about potential joint Turkish-Iranian military operations against these groups, which prompted Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) paramilitary to release a statement the very next day denying they had any plans to conduct any operations beyond Iran’s frontiers. In retrospect that incident is proving to be an apt precedent for Ankara’s current claims.