Turkey's attacks on PKK positions in the Kurdistan Region over the past year have strained relations between some Kurdish movements. For at least the past three months, there have been small clashes between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the north of the region. This has not only alarmed the Kurds, but some Kurdish analysts have warned of another internal conflict between Kurdish factions, such as what happened in the 1990s between the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Mr. van Veen, a senior researcher on Kurdish issues at Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands blamed three factors of Turkish pressure on the PKK, PKK entry into Sinjar and the rise of the Syrian Kurdish forces, known as the YPG, for the conflict between the KDP and the PKK.
What follow are his full answers to KurdPress questions;
There were sporadic clashes between the PKK and the KDP forces in the Northwestern Iraqi Kurdistan Region during 2020. Peshmerga ministry has claimed a Syrian Kurdish force attacked Iraqi Kurdish forces in Peshkhabor two days ago. The clash between Peshmerga and the YPG (Peoples Protection Units) is new and perhaps a new dimension of Kurdish- Kurdish fighting. how do you see the events?
There are at least three key factors that play a role in PKK-KDP clashes in my view. The first factor is the increasing volume and permanent nature of Turkish incursions into Iraq - against the PKK. Turkey has established dozens of bases on Iraqi soil – effectively creating a buffer zone - and conducts regular airstrikes on presumed PKK positions and individuals. In other words, Ankara has increased the pressure on the PKK. If we see KDP-PKK clashes in, for example, Sinjar, it is in part because PKK elements are looking for a different area of operations and shelter that is further away from the Turkish border.
The second factor was the PKK moving into Sinjar in 2014/2015 to protect its Yezidi population from Islamic State when the KDP was not capable of doing so. This enabled the PKK to build up its presence in the area, for example through the YBS that is also part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces. It never left.
The third factor is the rapid growth of the YPG in next-door Syria. This growth was initially made possible by good relations with the Syrian regime and strong support from the PKK (the YPG and PKK remain closely linked), and later by the YPG’s partnership with the US against Islamic State. Both the Feshkaboor and Sinjar areas are important from a logistical and supply point of view as they link Qandil with northeast Syria.
So in a sense, the KDP is confronted with a growing PKK presence on its territory due to both Turkish and YPG efforts to increase their own control in north Iraq and northeast Syria respectively. While it was manageable for the KDP to have the PKK around as long as it remained in Qandil, its presence in Dohuk, Sinjar etc. is becoming more of a problem.
Some analysts believe Turkey is behind the tension between the KDP and the YPG/PKK in the Iraqi Kurdistan. They believe only KDP forces clash with the PKK forces. How do you explain this?
As I suggested above, part of the explanation of the PKK’s growing presence in the KDP-run parts of the KRI are the Turkish offensives into Iraq. In our recent analysis of Turkey’s militarization and regionalization of its strategy against the Kurds across Syria, Iraq and Turkey itself, we estimate that Ankara has established about two dozen bases roughly 15-20 kilometer inside of Iraq while it also conducts regular airstrikes further afield in the Makhmour and Sinjar areas. In other words, there is pressure on the PKK.
Another useful point to note is the KDP cannot afford to alienate Turkey too much due to trade dependencies and oil sales in particular. Its leadership has become relatively close to Turkey as well. I’m not suggesting it takes Turkish orders to curtail the PKK, but there will definitely be pressure behind the scenes.
Why is the central government of Iraq silent over Turkey attacks on the PKK in Kurdistan Region or the clashes between Peshmerga and the PKK forces?
Well, beyond fairly vague talk of being friends with everyone, Iraq does not really have much of a functional foreign policy towards many of its neighbors from what I can see. This holds for Iran, Jordan and Kuwait as much as it does for Turkey. It’s not surprising given the scope of domestic challenges Baghdad faces – Covid-19, the fiscal crisis, protests, the oil price etc – or given the fragmentation, vested interests and intense competition that characterize its politics.
In addition, Baghdad is probably happy to let the KRG fix its own issues beyond occasionally summoning the Turkish ambassador. And then there are trade and economic dependencies hat no-one wants to jeopardize. Also remember that Turkish military actions take place in remote and sparsely populated areas. Now, as the Sinjar agreement of October between Baghdad and Erbil suggested, all of this may be different for areas further south so that is something to watch.
Joe Biden criticized Erdogan over the Kurdish problem. Some Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkey Kurdish leaders welcomed his victory over Donald Trump. What can Biden do for the Kurds in these countries?
In my opinion, getting the YPG/PYD to agree to a more inclusive governance structure for northeast Syria would be an important step because it can create a viable area where both Syrian Kurds and other Syrian population groups can live in relatively peace and with autonomy. But more inclusivity will require departure of most PKK elements since otherwise the KNC, Arab tribes and the KDP are unlikely to participate while Turkey will remain a (military) threat. The difficulty for the PKK is that they don’t really have anywhere to go to given Turkish pressure on Qandil and KDP resistance to a greater PKK presence in its own territory. So why would the PKK leave?
It’s here that the US, EU and Turkey, as well as the KNC and KDP, will likely have to show a mix of pressure and flexibility. For instance, one idea might be for the PKK to maintain a modest participation in governing northeast Syria via a new front party so that the YPG and PYD can become more Syrian. Some sort of consociationalism governance model could be developed perhaps. The KDP and PKK could also negotiate a new modus vivendi in western Iraqi Kurdistan if the governance of northeast Syria becomes more inclusive with a greater role for the KNC and others. The US and EU could in fact provide incentives to make such proposals more attractive, for example in the form of providing security guarantees or setting up a development trust fund for northeast Syria and the border area.
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