In the last six months of 2017 the Turkish government increased its bombings and shelling of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in northern Iraqi Kurdistan. Casualties were rarely reported but many towns and villages were hit in these strikes. In response, in November and December the PKK attacked the Turks leaving several dozen casualties amongst its troops. To help explain this situation is freelance journalist Frederike Geerdink who specializes in the PKK. She can be followed on Twitter @fgeerdink
1. For years now Turkey has bombed the PKK in Kurdistan. By the end of 2017 however it seemed like those attacks had increased from perhaps 1-2 times a month to nearly every week. Was there anything that happened within Turkey or in Iraq or Syria where the PKK and Turkey are also involved that led to this escalation?
On 14 December, the Turkish army crossed the border into the mountains where the PKK is located in the northeast of Iraq. Such an invasion had been expected by the PKK for some time, as far as I know at least since the summer of 2016. Ever since, the Turkish army has increased its presence in areas that are under administration of the KDP. Also, they started to expand the military infrastructure. There were already at least two dozen bases of the army and of the Turkish intelligence agency MIT. So it is not only the bombing and shelling that increased.
Turkey has vowed to destroy the PKK. The aim is to remove the PKK not only from the mountainous area in the north of Iraq but also from Sinjar. The PKK in Sinjar is no threat to Turkey, since the aim of the PKK there is not to have a base from where to attack Turkey but to protect the Yezidis. Also, the border area there is flat and bare and thus unsuitable for infiltration into Turkey.
That the Turkish military activity increased now in KDP area, can not be separated from the situation of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (KRI). Ever since the referendum for independence of Kurdistan, late September last year, KDP-leader and former President Massoud Barzani finds himself in an increasingly isolated position. The border with Turkey is still open, and this border is an absolute life line for the KRI. Barzani has no leverage to go against President Erdogan’s wishes. The question of whether Barzani would object to Turkish anti-PKK operations if he did have any influence, remains unanswered.
2. At the end of 2017, the PKK decided to strike back against the Turks and attacked their forces. Fighting between the two sides had not occurred within Iraq for quite some time. Can you shed any light on why this happened?
The PKK considers the Turkish army an occupying force, not only in the KRI but also in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. They consider the ‘attacks’ a legitimate self defense against a force that has once again pledged to destroy them and is intensifying its military presence to try to reach that goal.
In case people are wondering: I don’t think these developments are directly related to the MIT-officers that were kidnapped by the PKK in August last year and whom are still in the PKK’s hands.
3. The Kurdistan Regional Government announced in January 2018 that it would set up a security zone to try to stop the PKK from operating along the Turkish border. Is the KRG serious about this or is it just for show to help with relations with Ankara?
The KRG can’t possibly be serious. The border area is militarily under the PKK’s control so what does Barzani have in mind? Send his peshmerga in there? Impossible of course, and he knows this. It could be that he was referring to the border area more to the northwest, north of Sinjar, but as we know the peshmerga withdrew from Sinjar and they can’t go back. But it could help relations with Ankara to say this, and Erdogan may be able to use this domestically in case he needs to justify warming relations with the KRG again.