Turkish airstrikes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Kurdistan Region are nothing new. Ankara’s most recent attacks on the group, however, struck areas presently under the control of the Baghdad government.
Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, pointed out that Turkey has attacked suspected PKK targets “with increasing intensity” in the northern part of the Kurdistan Region over “the last several months”.
“Now they struck Nineveh, which brought the ire of Baghdad,” Wing said. “It called in Turkey’s ambassador to complain, but Turkey said it would continue and then bombed Kurdistan again.”
On the night of Thursday, December 13, Turkish warplanes launched two airstrikes against alleged PKK targets in both the Makhmour region and Shingal in Nineveh province.
The following day Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave Turkey’s ambassador to Iraq “a letter of protest” over the attack, condemning “repeated aerial violations” of sovereign territory.
“The ministry condemns the violation of Iraqi airspace by Turkish aircraft and the targeting of several sites in Mount Sinjar and Makhmour in northern Iraq, which resulted in the loss of lives and property,” read the ministry’s statement.
“Such acts violate the sovereignty of Iraq and its security and people ... [and] are contrary to the principle of good-neighborliness.”
Despite Iraq’s protest on Saturday, December 15, Ankara launched yet more strikes directed at alleged PKK targets.
It is no secret that Turkey routinely launches airstrikes against the PKK. Since the 1990s, however, these airstrikes have primarily been directed at the group’s main stronghold on Qandil Mountain inside the Kurdistan Region – outside Baghdad’s jurisdiction.
Ankara’s recent airstrikes against Shingal and Makhmour are not wholly unprecedented.
Turkey launched airstrikes against the PKK in Shingal on April 25, 2017, accidentally killing Peshmerga troops in the process.
Turkey is also believed to have carried out the bombing of the Kurdish refugee camp in Makhmour, which hosts more than 12,000 Kurds who fled Turkey in the 1990s, on December 6, 2017.
Four political refugees from that camp were killed in Turkey’s latest bombing of Makhmour.
Both Shingal and Makhmour are disputed Kurdistani territories. Following its military takeover of Kirkuk on October 16, 2017, Iraq also captured Shingal and parts of Makhmour. Turkey’s strikes in these areas, especially while they are under direct Iraqi control, are significantly harder for Baghdad to ignore than the routine strikes within the boundaries of the Kurdistan Region.
“Baghdad is trying to show it has authority in Makhmour and all of Iraq, including Iraqi Kurdistan,” said Michael Knights, a noted Iraq expert and the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute.
“They have always démarched Turkey on these airstrikes or artillery strikes to make the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] look weak and out of control, but it is not as if Baghdad actually makes any difference,” he said.
It is worth remembering last March when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was threatening to forcibly remove the PKK from Shingal that Baghdad responded by rapidly deploying troops to the Yezidi areas and compelled the PKK to withdraw its forces to defuse the situation.
While the PKK ostensibly withdrew, Baghdad permitted the Shingal Protection Units (YBS), a Yezidi paramilitary created and trained by the PKK, to remain.
Ankara does not believe the PKK actually withdrew, but Iraq’s actions in all likelihood staved off Turkish military action in Shingal, particularly a feared ground incursion. A military presence in Shingal would make it easier for Turkey to block overland routes between Qandil and the Syrian Kurdish regions.
It is unclear whether Iraq could intervene in a similar fashion to deter or dissuade Turkey from carrying out airstrikes. Baghdad’s fleet of F-16 fighter jets is dwarfed by Ankara’s in size and sophistication, with its much longer range air-to-air missiles and more accurate bombs.
A more delicate intervention similar to its move into Shingal could be Iraq’s only option for reducing Turkish violations.
Wing is doubtful.
“The fact of the matter is that Iraq is still weak internally and regionally and has no real way to stop these strikes,” he said.
“Neither the Kurdistan Regional Government nor the central government has any presence in northern Iraqi Kurdistan, where the PKK has bases.”
“Even in Nineveh, Baghdad has limited sway. It asked the PKK to leave and the group made a show of it, but is still there,” he said.
“Until the PKK leaves, Turkey will continue to attack it in Iraq.”