Paul Iddon
Jun 19 2018

Erdoğan's opportune attack on Qandil faces uncertain end

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region in northern Iraq has repeatedly called on the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to leave Iraqi Kurdistan in light of the ongoing Turkish military operation against the group there.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu claimed, on June 5, that the operation, which Turkey says will clear the PKK from its base on Qandil mountain, will see “four-way cooperation between Turkey, the U.S., Baghdad and Erbil. Because the PKK is also the enemy of Erbil.”

The Turkish Air Force has frequently bombed Qandil over the years, the most recent airstrikes being over the weekend, since it is the primary headquarters for the PKK in the region. The far-left armed group took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984 and has fought Ankara primarily in southeast Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan ever since,

The terrain on Qandil makes it a difficult target for the Turkish military to either destroy or force out the PKK. For the same reason, the mountain has long been important and a valuable base and shelter for the PKK. If Turkey proves able to capture the area in the coming weeks and months it would be a huge blow to the PKK and its ability to fight Ankara in either southeast Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey's operation began in March and has seen ground troops advance at least 30 kilometers into Iraqi Kurdistan in Ankara’s most substantial move into the region in a decade. The last major initiative was a brief incursion in February 2008. KRG spokesperson Safeen Dizayee expressed sadness after a Turkish airstrike killed four young men picnicking on March 22 but nevertheless called on the PKK to leave civilian areas.

“We are opposed to any and all threats the PKK or other groups pose to our neighbours and urge all sides to desist from all actions that cause harm to the civilian population,” Dizayee stressed.

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has placed the blame on the PKK for the Turkish bombing.

“There is a reason why this [bombing] is happening,” Barzani said. “That reason must first be resolved. So long as this reason is not resolved, you cannot talk about the fallout.” He went on to add that the KRG has sought to dissuade the PKK from using the autonomous region to attack Turkey but “unfortunately” had failed.

Such comments are illustrative of the KRG's stance, but do not indicate that the KRG will militarily assist the Turkish operation.

Serhat Warto, a spokesperson of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization that includes the PKK and its affiliates in Iran and Syria, described the stance of the KRG, particularly Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), as nothing less than “supportive of the Turkish attack.”

“They do not have any political or military reaction to Turkish forces deployed to Kurdistan,” Warto told Ahval News in a phone interview, stressing that the KCK does not necessarily demand or expect the KRG or the KDP to react “militarily” against Turkey.

He nevertheless went on lambast the KRG's position, articulated by Dizayee, as “anti-Kurdish, disrespectful and a shame for the nation.”

Warto added that the KCK is particularly unhappy about the KRG comments that put the blame for the Turkish “occupation” on the PKK presence in Qandil. He said it is like blaming KRG parties for the genocidal campaign of Anfal, or the Halabja chemical attack in the 1980s.

“Can we say that if they [Kurdish parties] did not fight against Saddam Hussein, then Anfal and Halabja was not going to happen?” Warto asked rhetorically.

Lawk Ghafuri, a Kurdish political writer, pointed out that the KRG finds itself in a difficult position.

“The KRG has told the PKK to leave Kurdistan Region territories for years as it has always feared a Turkish-PKK clash there,” Ghafuri said. “The KRG will never benefit from any Turkish military activity nor from the presence of the PKK on its territory. Therefore, a Turkish operation against Qandil will harm the Kurdistan region regardless of whether or not Turkey succeeds militarily.

“Also, the presence of the PKK in the Kurdistan region has no positive aspects for the people,” he added. “The PKK's activities should only be inside Turkey if the group means to fight for Kurdish rights.”

The different positions of the leading Kurdish parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), also need to be factored in. While the current Turkish operation has primarily been in the Sidakan region, which is in the KDP zone of Iraqi Kurdistan near the Turkish border, Qandil Mountain is situated in the PUK zone near the Iranian border.

“The PUK has had no real major tension with the PKK for a long time,” Güneş Murat Tezcür, head of the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies at the University of Central Florida, told Ahval. “Public opinion and intelligentsia in the Sulaimani area have more sympathy for the PKK than that in Erbil and Behdinan. Moreover, the PUK has no real economic dependency on Turkey given the proximity and connectedness of the PUK-controlled territory to Iran.”

He also noted that the last time the PUK and the PKK engaged in hostilities against each other was back in the year 2000.

“So the PUK has no real reason to be supportive of any major Turkish operation against Qandil, which is technically in the PUK territory,” he said. “Equally important, Turkey has few leverages – either carrots or sticks – over the PUK to get its compliance.”

Relations between the PUK and Turkey hit a new low last summer after the PKK kidnapped two Turkish agents operating in the Sulaimani region, prompting Turkey to expel the PUK representative to Turkey. The PUK has recently urged Turkey to reevaluate its stance after Ankara accused the PUK of directly supporting the PKK against it, even going so far as to blame the PKK for harming their relations.

Ghafuri, an independent analyst and writer on Kurdish affairs, anticipates that “the KDP will not support a Turkish operation in the Kurdistan region against the PKK, but will also not stand against the Turkish operation either, as the KDP is currently against both the Turkish operation and the PKK presence.”

Yerevan Saeed, a Kurdish Research Fellow at the Middle East Research Institute (MERI), also believes it is “unlikely” that “the KDP will join the Turkish Army to fight the PKK.”

“That's very suicidal politically and the KDP is cognizant of that,” Saeed told Ahval. “But it is likely to provide intelligence. Ankara's military operations has further polarized Kurdish politics and society. The PUK and the Gorran Movement (one of the smaller opposition parties in Iraqi Kurdistan) continue to protest it, while the KDP has remained deaf and dumb about it because it knows it can remain a dominant political and military power in Kurdistan as long as Ankara's support continues.”

“From Sinjar to Behdinan (across the Turkish border), the KDP and PKK are territorial rivals,” Tezcür said. “For instance, in Behdinan, the remote mountain villages (some of them abandoned) would have PKK presence if there were no KDP forces around.”

Tezcür added that, “given the extensive commercial relationship between Turkey and the KDP since 2007 – the referendum was a serious crisis that did not really end this relationship – the KDP is susceptible to Turkish pressure to stay 'neutral' in this conflict.”

Saeed and Tezcür also noted the difficulty of uprooting the PKK from its well-established and well-entrenched stronghold on Qandil. Saeed points to the “rugged and unwelcome geography of Qandil, from a military perspective, it would be hard to see Turkish operations leading to a conclusive victory.”

Saeed predicts this “could drag on for quite sometime, if not forever.”

Tezcür also points to a “major advantage of the PKK”; the fact the group “lives off the land” in contrast to the KDP peshmerga or the Turkish military.

“They are always around and simply come back and reoccupy positions after major operations, a recurrent pattern for a quarter of a century,” he said. “I don’t really see any major change in this pattern at the moment either.”

Warto nevertheless sought to stress in a phone interview that “our biggest guerrilla force is stationed in the north (Turkish Kurdistan]”, claiming that Ankara has not proven able to defeat the PKK in its southeast and therefore has little chance of afflicting serious defeats against the group beyond its frontiers.

Analysts focused on the region appear to agree: politically the current operation makes sense for Turkey. With elections on the horizon, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can use this action for his own political gains.

“Surely every time Turkish elections are close the AKP and Erdogan intensify their fight against the PKK, and that serves them big time in the election, or at least has done until the present day,” Ghafuri said. “Hence, the Turkish operation in Afrin and Qandil will serve Erdogan in the next elections.”

Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, also noted that Erdogan “can point to the current operation against the PKK as an example of him providing for the security of the country.”

Saeed said that while the timing of the elections is a factor “Ankara also realises Iraq is quite weak, that the KRG has become much more fragile following last September’s independence referendum.”

On top of this “Iran is being cornered by the current US administration. So the geopolitical opportunity is ripe for Turkey and it is acting on it to achieve its foreign policy objectives.”