The PKK in Iraq: A Geopolitical Reading / Diyari Salih

<p style="text-align: left;">Since 2014, the Kurdistan Workers&amp;rsquo; Party (PKK) has become a new and effective player within the Iraqi political arena. It fought strongly against Da&amp;rsquo;ish terrorists, especially in Nineveh province. Several communities sympathized with its presence and its role in Sinjar, where Da&amp;rsquo;ish committed the most brutal crimes against the Yazidi people. The PKK also remains active in the Qandil Mountains, Makhmour and Amadyia district. The PKK&amp;rsquo;s presence and influence means it has a role to play in the geopolitical interactions of the Iraqi nation.

The PKK has a clear strategy in Iraq. It has deployed its paramilitary assets in Sinjar under the pretext of protecting the local communities. It is also trying to spawn and support several paramilitary groups that believe in its ideology, such as the Sinjar Resistance Units. It insists that these tactics will damage Da&rsquo;ish and the Turkish state, which the PKK see as enacting a destructive project in northern Iraq.

For decades, Turkey has adopted a decisive political and military trend opposing the PKK&rsquo;s interests. It will not allow the Kurdish fighters to turn Sinjar into a safe-haven for their aggressive activities. Ankara is now demanding each of Baghdad, Erbil and Washington to cooperate with it as it seeks to expel the PKK from Sinjar. The Turkish presidency asserts that the PKK&rsquo;s presence in this geographical area will lead to the formation of a dangerous security threat. Many analysts consider these Turkish assertions as an excuse to wage a wider war against the PKK in Iraq.

When the PKK appeared on the post-Da&rsquo;ish scene in Iraq, there were many suspicions that Baghdad would exploit this issue to its advantage. Different sides thought that Baghdad would arm the PKK forces to fight Da&rsquo;ish. They were sure that such a step would later undermine the political balance in northern Iraq. The political parties of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), specifically the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), affirmed their reservations towards that step, stating that the arming of the PKK must be done through cooperation with the international coalition to fight Da&rsquo;ish. Turkey also had underlying suspicions that Baghdad might use the PKK as a bargaining chip in order to force the Turkish troops, in Baashiqa camp, to leave. Accordingly, Ankara and Erbil made efforts to convince Baghdad not to implement that plan.

In the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the KRI and Turkey fear that the PKK might grow into having a crucial role. They believe that it might ally with the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to prevent the KDP from returning to impose its hegemony there. Though having great ideological differences, the PKK and the PMF have some of the same adversaries: Turkey, the KDP and Da&rsquo;ish. Through such an alliance, the PKK could strategically become an important element in Baghdad&rsquo;s policy towards the disputed areas. To highlight this potential development, the KDP pointed out that the PMF stood against the efforts to remove the PKK militants from Sinjar, stressing that the PKK formed armed groups drawn from the local population and that they are now affiliated to the PMF in order to control the city. The KDP worries that this model might be applied in the future against its interests in other parts of northern Iraq. Hence, Turkey has confirmed that it will not give the PKK any chance to stay in Kirkuk or Sinjar.

The KDP has had a rocky relationship with the PKK to say the least. It accused the PKK of backing its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), during the Kurdistan war, which broke out in 1994. It also affirms that the PKK is currently working to destabilize the situation in Sinjar, and looking to prevent the KRI from annexing this city to the Kurdish Region. The KDP has claimed that the PKK has repeatedly targeted the pipeline carrying oil from the KRI to Turkey&rsquo;s Ceyhan port. KDP members have also laid the blame for the Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq at the feet of the PKK. &ldquo;The PKK and its affiliated forces always accused the KDP of allowing the Turkish troops to enter Duhok&rsquo;s border areas, but, indeed, it is PKK&rsquo;s behavior which attracts the Turkish army to the region,&rdquo; indicated Ali Awni.

Turkey has other geopolitical concerns about the PKK&rsquo;s role in Iraq. It says that this organization, which emerged in Iraq in the 1980s, uses the border area located between Turkey, Iraq and Iran to harm Turkey&rsquo;s national security. It argues that the PKK has so far managed to exploit the geographical features of this area in multiple ways to strengthen its military capabilities. Turkey also announced in January 2019 that the PKK encouraged the Kurdish residents of Dohuk city in the KRI to storm its military base in that city. Furthermore, Turkish intelligence has revealed that the recent assassination of one of its diplomats in Erbil was carried out by the PKK. Turkish officials have also stated that the PKK has connections with Syrian Kurdish forces such as the People&rsquo;s Protection Units (YPG), and that they want to create a Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria to threaten the Turkish state&rsquo;s integrity. If this scenario plays out, the PKK would control this vast territory extending from Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea. Turkish policymakers stress that they will not tolerate the PKK&rsquo;s regional machinations.

Though many analysts claim that Iran does not deal with the PKK due to its classification as a terror organization by Turkey, other opinions must be considered. The first perception indicates that Iran has indirect relations with the PKK. The evidence to prove this is the PKK&rsquo;s negative attitude towards the Kurdish armed movement in Iran, accusing it of serving Iran&rsquo;s enemies: Saudi Arabia and Turkey. &ldquo;Iranian Kurdish parties should put down arms and instead focus on civil and cultural movements to prevent undesirable outcomes that would result from other country&rsquo;s influence,&rdquo; said Murad Karayilan, the leader and co-founder of the PKK. The second view underlines the fact that Iran has decided to not participate in any Turkish military operations against the PKK. The third stance maintains that Iran is now seeking to revive its historical relations with the PKK and the PUK to contain the Turkish-KDP alliance and to preserve the unity of Iraq. The fourth hypothesis suggests that Iran will not allow any forces backed by Turkey or Gulf Arab states to control the Iraqi-Syrian borders. Thus, this task is being entrusted to the PMF and the PKK.

The US considers the PKK as a terrorist group. However, Ankara supposes that Washington has not yet forgotten that Turkey had not permitted its troops to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq in 2003. Therefore, it believes that the US might still want to retaliate through aid to the PKK in Syria and Iraq. Accordingly, Turkey is now launching a military operation in Iraq to put an end to the perceived US support to the PKK. Ankara says that it is going to destroy the routes that the US uses to send medicine, food, weapons and ammunition to the PKK members in Iraq. This complication has played a role in the recent deterioration in American-Turkish relations and could pose an obstacle to future attempts to mend the relationship.

Whatever the future holds, the PKK is now considered as a major new actor within the Iraqi geopolitical scene. It has become an effective player in political and military calculations in northern Iraq and the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil. It has also manufactured a place for itself within the great game unfolding between Ankara, Tehran and Washington in this part of the Middle East. Iraq needs internal settlements and a regional deal to solve the ongoing and potential problems created by the arrival of this new contestant.

Iraqi Thoughts

Reporter&rsquo;s code: 50101

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