The Kurdish-Turkish conflict in Iraq: recent escalation

An angry crowd of protestors stormed a Turkish military base last month in the semi-autonomous Kurdish province of Duhok, in northern Iraq. At the base, 70 kilometers north of Mosul, protestors set fire to vehicles and buildings, causing several explosions. Turkey scrambled warplanes and armed drones in response, killing at least one Iraqi citizen and wounding several more. Turkey has blamed the attack on members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a left-wing Kurdish militant group and political party outlawed in Turkey, accusing them of disguising themselves as civilians to fuel conflict. Turkey’s Defense Ministry attributed the attack to “provocation by the PKK terrorist organisation” on Twitter.

The protest was in reaction to Turkish airstrikes against the PKK in northern Iraq that have killed several civilians. The families of six Kurdish victims of these airstrikes led the protest at the Turkish base. Conflict between the Turkish government has been worsening in recent years, marked by increasingly combative behavior by both the Turks and the Kurds.

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are an ethnic group of the Mesopotamian plains and highlands that number between 25 and 35 million. Kurds are spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. Despite their relatively sizeable population, Kurds lack a state to call home in the Middle East. After the First World War, the Allied Powers established a provision for a Kurdish state called Kurdistan in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. However, the provision was excluded from the Treaty of Lausanne three years later, leaving the Kurds as minorities in their respective countries. Although Kurdistan is not an official state today, the name denotes a semi-autonomous region in eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iran, and small parts of Armenia and Syria in which the Kurds maintain their own government – recognized by Iraq and Iran.

As a result of their quasi-autonomy in their respective countries, many subnational Kurdish militias exist to defend Kurds in the region. Iraqi Kurds maintain their own army, the peshmerga, an instrumental party in the fight against the Islamic State. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), part of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, was an important ally of the U.S.-led multinational coalition against ISIS. However, the PKK, which operates largely in Turkey, is a more radical group with Marxist-Leninist roots. Formed in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, the group agitates for greater Kurdish autonomy. The PKK is classified as a terrorist group by the U.S., the EU, and Turkey, and is often condemned by mainstream Kurdish media. The distinction between the PKK and its counterparts in Iraq and Syria is nontrivial – the peshmerga actually came to the Turkish base in Duhok to force the PKK protestors out and restore order. The regional Iraqi Kurdish government promised to punish the perpetrators of the incident.

Turkey and the Kurds

Turkey has had a long, tense history with the Kurdish people. Although between 15 and 20 percent of the Turkish population is Kurdish, the Kurds have been targeted by the government for decades. In the 1920s and 1930s, the government resettled much of the population and attacked Kurdish culture. Kurdish names were changed, dress and language restricted, and ethnicity denied. It was these restrictions that caused Ocalan to form the PKK, calling for an independent state in Turkey. The PKK pursued this goal until the 1990s, at which point it softened its stance, calling instead for broader cultural, economic, and political rights. Turkey keeps an aggressively close eye on Kurds across the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, having threatened to invade northern Iraq if the Kurds attempt to declare independence from Baghdad.

Turkey has maintained forces in northern Iraq since the 1990s. Presently, Turkey maintains at least 11 military bases and outposts in northern Iraq, primarily citing the need to combat the PKK. Turkish military activity in Iraq has ramped up recently even as the Islamic State has become less of a threat – Ankara is attempting to target the YPG, claiming the group has ties to the PKK. Until recently, YPG’s position as a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS has protected them from Turkish aggression, but now their position is less tenuous, especially in light of the U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria.

What’s next?

This incident is far from the first of its kind. A similar event occured in November 2018, when the PKK claimed responsibility for an explosion that destroyed a Turkish army base in the Kurdish province of Hakkari in Iraq. The attack was in response to the assassination by Turkish forces of a top PKK leader. The Turkish government claimed the explosion was caused by defective ammunition and banned any news broadcasting about the incident. The Turkish refusal to acknowledge the impact the PKK has had is telling of how threatened the Turkish government feel. The more threatened Turkey is, particularly with a volatile leader like President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the more aggressive and unpredictable their actions may become.

The increasing frequency and severity of PKK protests demonstrates the frustration of Iraqi Kurds with the Turkish government’s killing of innocent civilians. This most recent incident in Duhok was one of the most violent anti-Turkish protests in northern Iraq, and tensions between Turkey and Iraq will undoubtedly rise as Turkish-Kurdish conflict worsens. After the attack in Duhok province, the Iraqi government in Baghdad denounced Turkey’s killing of an Iraqi citizen and the repeated violation of Iraqi airspace. The Iraqi government had already summoned the Turkish ambassador to Baghdad once, after a series of airstrikes in mid-December 2018. These seemingly small conflicts speak to a potentially more significant strain on Turkish-Iraqi relations. Iraq will only tolerate so much foreign intervention from Turkey and Turkey may adopt an even more belligerent and deadly policy against the Kurds. Such an escalation would undoubtedly result in casualties on both sides.

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Author: Julia Broomer

Julia Broomer is a staff writer at The Compass. She is a freshman majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in the Middle East and minoring in Arabic and Sociocultural Anthropology.  Her interests include counter-terrorism, social and political conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, and comparative cultures in the region.