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Now, What Will the Kurds Do?

Turkey’s President Recep Yayyip Erdogan had a long conversation with Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi in the first week of January, followed by sending his Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus to Baghdad. Then Ankara’s Prime Minister Binali Yildrim visited the Iraqi capital January 7, had long talks with Abadi, and reached an agreement on the security issues concerning the two countries. Among other issues, the Turkish-Iraqi talks included a discussion about Turkey’s military presence in Bashiqa and PKK presence in Sinjar (Shingal).

The PKK is in Sinjar via two affiliated groups: The People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Shingal Protection Units (SPU). Baghdad recognized the SPU as a friendly, non-terrorist group. Turkey, on the other hand, considers the PKK, the YPG, and the SPU terrorist groups.

However, Turkey is moving fast to establish an anti-PKK coalition in Iraq. This coalition includes Baghdad, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Nineveh’s Turkish-trained National Mobilization Forces (NMF or Al Hashd Al Watani).

In his joint press conference with Yildrim, Abadi said that non-government forces will not be tolerated in Iraq. “No force will be allowed to work beyond the frame of the security forces, or the formal Iraqi security forces to be present in that area. And that agreement is final,” Abadi said. Yildirim also noted that the KRG was also opposed to the PKK presence in the area. “They (the KRG) confirmed that they are prepared to launch operations to expel terrorist organizations in Sinjar,” he said. “The government in northern Iraq and also the Iraqi central government have promised us that they will not differentiate between one terrorist organization and another. We are thankful to both governments for their sensitivity in fighting terrorist organizations and for their seriousness in expelling terrorist organizations in Sinjar, and we are prepared to cooperate with both governments to fight terrorist organizations,” Yildrim added.

Turkey committed to ending its military presence in the Bashiqa base upon the return of Mosul, still occupied by ISIL, to Iraq, and confirmed in writing that the base is not permanent and that it will be closed in a timely fashion. The agreement signed during Yildrim’s visit to Baghdad states clearly that “Both sides confirmed that Bashiqa camp is Iraqi.” But the Turkish withdrawal from Bashiqa is not only related to defeating ISIL in Mosul. Ankara explained its presence in the base is as result of the PKK presence in Sinjar, too. Turkey’s departure from the base is conditioned by PKK departure from Sinjar.

What we see from Ankara’s diplomatic offensive in Iraq and elsewhere is a reflection of a general reorientation of Turkey’s foreign policy to focus mainly on issues directly related to Turkey’s own national interests. In a way, it is the end of a five-year Turkish rollercoaster of grandiose claims and sponsorship of proxy groups throughout the Middle East.

Looking at this reorientation from Erdogan’s side, he seems to have finally discovered that the throne of a Sultan may be too high to climb and he better focus on the bird in hand not the ten in the tree. He appears to be changing policies on Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood, Russia, the US and Iraq. He is oriented now towards the issues related directly to his country’s concerns.

From the outsides, however, these changes in Turkish policy direction spell trouble to many of Erdogan’s protégés and enemies alike. For his regional proxies, a loss of support is in the cards now. For his enemies, namely the PKK, it is a turning point.

One example is Russia’s position on the PKK presence in Syria’s Al Bab. When in Iraq earlier this month, DPM Numan said that Ankara has a green light from Moscow to take the town. When asked if Erdogan and Putin reached an agreement on the Kurdish question in northern Syria, he said “There is no substantial agreement yet, but Russia supports us in retaking Al Bab and in the Euphrates Shield and understands Turkey’s delicate situation with regards to Manbij. The Russians understand that we do not have occupying intentions.”

Of course, there is no agreement on Minbij…yet. The Russians do not pay in advance. But their approval of Turkey’s attack on Al Bab — through the Euphrates Shield — is significant. Though we printed that a couple of month ago, and though everyone knows that Russia’s air force is now helping the Turkish-supported ES forces, when such a statement comes from Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister it is, in a way, an admission that Moscow can unleash the Turks to punish the PKK for working with the US.

In addition to the steps taken with Baghdad and in northern Syria to confront the PKK, Ankara is progressing fast in coordination with Erbil to expel the PKK from all of northern Iraq. During the meeting between Yildrim and KRG President Masoud Barzani, the issue of PKK activities in northern Iraq was raised again while discussing Turkey’s overall plan to reduce the presence of the organization in that region.

However, there is no sign that the PKK intends to abandon its strong base in Sinjar. The KRG recently reached an agreement with the PKK for a peaceful pullout of that region, yet there are no serious signs that the pullout happen. The PKK claims it is in Sinjar to protect the Yezidi minority that was savaged by ISIL. But the organization’s role, even in protecting the Yezidis, is being questioned.

Iraq’s former army chief of staff Babakir Zebari, a Kurd from the KRG region, said recently that a special American team tried to save thousands of Yezidi civilians from abduction and imminent massacre at a village near Sinjar in the summer of 2014, but that they were stopped by members of the PKK present in the area at the time.

On the other hand, recent developments point to a potential proxy war between the Iranians and the Turks in northern Iraq. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) was reported to have provided money and arms to the PKK to keep the Turks on their toes for their role in Syria and to pressure the KRG.

However, a leader in the pro-Iran Al Hashd Al Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Front) in Iraq – Karim Nuri – denied that his forces provided any assistance to the PKK in Sinjar. But, few among Iraqi Kurds deny that Iran is playing a dangerous game of blackmail with Barzani.

Erdogan may be moving fast to put the PKK in a corner. The US is expected to leave north Syria and north Iraq once ISIL is militarily defeated. Therefore, the YPG will lose their main source of support on the ground.

Russia refuses the idea of giving the PKK a quasi-independent region in northern Syria or northern Iraq, particularly now as it is moving closer to Turkey for larger geostrategic reasons.

The KRG is ready to intermediate between Turkey’s Kurds and Ankara, and is preventing the expansion of the PKK in northern Iraq. Turkey is working on improving its ties with Baghdad. And who knows, maybe Moscow will be able to reach a historical deal among Iran, Turkey and the Arabs.

It is obvious now that the PKK made some terrible mistakes, though the group’s loyal worshipers will never be able to see that or self-criticize.

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