Turkish Incursion Wreaks Havoc in Iraqi Kurdistan

Locked in a bloody struggle for decades now, Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are now confronting one another in the Kurdish mountains of Iraq. Little by little, the area is being depopulated. And the struggle has aggravated tensions between the various Kurdish factions, raising fears of a civil war in the autonomous region. Reportage.

Peshmerga base, Zini Warte
Sylvain Mercadier

A war “in camera” is raging on the steep slopes and in the deep valleys of Iraqi Kurdistan. Since the resumption of hostilities between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Ankara following the abortive negotiations in 2015, the Turkish army has gradually been chipping away at Kurdish territory, set ting up mountain bases and above all criss-crossing the skies with those drones which proved their deadly efficacy in the recent Karabagh war. Turkey’s ground operation, launched in June 2020, and dubbed “Claw-Tiger”, is meant to complement its airborne operation “Claw-Eagle”, and aims to create along its frontier a security cordon against Iraqi Kurdistan and flush out the PKK guerrilla fighters.

Scorched Earth

The impact on the local population is horrific. The drone and fighter plane strikes have caused dozens of civilian casualties and terrorised entire villages. Hundreds of Kurdish and Christian minority villages have been emptied of their inhabitants over the years. In the vicinity of Bradost, where the Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi borders meet, survivors of those air strikes have agreed to talk to us: “It happened on 29 June in Mergaresh. The whole village was awakened at dawn by a strike against our orchards. It lit a fire which we managed to put out. But coming home, we were directly targeted by another strike. I had a leg torn off. My brother and my cousin were also badly injured. That same day, the village was entirely evacuated,” Khoshawi Mikayl Azi, a displaced person, told us.

Khoshawi Mikayl Aziz and brother Mahajer
Khoshawi Mikayl Aziz and brother Mahajer

While the Turks regard all the victims of their operations as “terrorists”, Khoshawi and his relatives were adamant: “There was not a single PKK fighter in the village. The guerilleros were in the forest, far away from any dwellings,” he assured us. Since then, his family has cobbled together a new home on the outskirts of Soran, the largest town in the Bradost foothills. To do so, they went into debt and owe their creditors thousands of dollars. Khoshawi and his brothers can’t even pay for the Internet connection they need for their children’s education since tele-learning has been made obligatory for secondary school students on account of the Covid pandemic.

These populations are going through a traumatic experience, living with an invisible threat constantly hanging over their heads. “All in all, in the Bradost range, some twenty village shave been evacuated since 2015. There are a dozen Turkish military bases here and as many outposts. The Turkish soldiers open fire on people and livestock that venture too close to their positions. Near the frontier, a family of nomads was blown to bits by an air strike last year. They were never even numbered among the victims,” Hama1 explained to us. She lives in Sidakan, the largest town in the Bradost region.

The number of civilian victims of Turkish operations in Iraqi Kurdistan, as calculated by the NGO Christian Peacemaker Team, is over 100 wounded and 97 dead. According to the same source, 126 villages have been completely abandoned since these operations began in 2015 and over 500 more are threatened with the same fate. A recent report from the Regional Government of Kurdistan (RGK) numbers for its part over 500 villages entirely deserted since the beginning of the 1990s due to the fighting between Turkey and the PKK.

Ruins after a Turkish airstrike
Ruins after a Turkish airstrike

The impact on agricultural development and the environment is equally tragic. Thousands of hectares have gone up in smoke on account of Turkish air strikes and hundreds of farms have been abandoned. “My own beehives and my uncles were all destroyed by the Turkish bombings and so were our orchards,” Khoshawi deplores. “Each and every Mergarash family lost property worth several tens of thousands of dollars in just a few minutes,” he estimates. Khoshawi’s uncle, Sueyman Aziz, is dependent on his pension as a veteran of the Peshmerga (Kurdish fighting forces) to rent a room in Sidakan, where he has found refuge.

As it happens, pensions and wages from the RGK are now frozen on account of a dispute between Erbil and Baghdad. Thus, to the physical insecurity due to the conflict with Turkey, is now added economic insecurity for thousands of civilians.

War of attrition

The Turks don’t always get their targets wrong and do regularly manage to strike the Kurdish rebels. For its part, the PKK disperses its fighters in the mountains and carries out its operations with small mobile units. “The PKK has inflicted serious losses on the Turkish army while at the same time losing many of its own fighters. Yet it has not managed to prevent the Turks from setting up bases in the mountains. The drones considerably impede the guerilleros’ movements as well as their logistics”, Karokh Othman, a journalist specialising in the Turkey-PKK conflict explained.2.

Remains of a bombed house in Sarkan village
Remains of a bombed house in Sarkan village

In order to compensate for the superiority of their enemy, the PKK relies on local solidarities. Although the Barzani clan’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which controls the regions of Erbil and Dohuk has outlawed any form of collaboration with the PKK, a not insignificant fringe of the population has rallied the cause of the Kurdish guerrilla fighters from Turkey. Providing them with shelter, intelligence and food, these sympathisers afford them essential support which makes up for their technological shortcoming. However, this backing is strictly local and constitutes a double-edged sword since it makes civilians pay a heavy tribute. More and more voices are being raised against the PKK’s presence in the region’s inhabited areas.

“The PKK is responsible for this situation. The fighters should withdraw from the inhabited areas. Otherwise, the civilians will keep on deserting the mountains”, Khoshawi’s brother Mahajir said during our interview.

As for the RGK and above all the KDP, the PKK’s great rival for Kurdish leadership, it is only too willing to decry the latter’s presence in this region which it regards as under its sovereignty. Although the PKK guerrillas control many mountain positions, the Barzanis’ party has called upon them many times to evacuate their zones of control in Iraqi Kurdistan and let civilians resume a normal existence. However, a PKK withdrawal seems unlikely, since its very existence depends on those practically unassailable mountain positions whence it carries out its armed struggle against Ankara. In order to sap its rival’s strength, the KDP decided long ago to aid the Turks in their operations, providing intelligence and protection for the Turkish military installations throughout the region.

Kurds versus Kurds

Symmetrically, the KDP has imposed a blockade, ostensibly for security reasons, on the many areas where Turks and PKK are battling one another. It is very hard to reach the many evacuated villages under surveillance by Turkish drones. Recently, RGK forces, largely dominated by the KDP, set up a base ] in a highly strategic mountain pass near Qandil, which is where the PKK command headquarters are located, raising tensions that revived the spectre of open warfare between Kurds, a berakurji3 like the fratricidal war that caused thousands of casualties in the nineties.

The KDP has also distinguished itself by signing a tailor-made agreement with Baghdad concerning the control of the district of Sinjar. This deal favours the interests of Turkey to the detriment of the PKK’s allies since it orders them to leave the mountain where the Yezidis have found refuge. The deal was made without any consultation of the local population, many of whom still remember that the PKK was the only force that stood between them and the advancing Islamic State in 2014 when the Peshmerga had withdrawn without firing a shot.

Qandil mountains
Qandil mountains

The tension has ratcheted up a notch over the last few weeks when the PKK and some Peshmerga affiliated with the KDP clashed directly in Chamanke District, far though it is from the border. It is the strategic importance of the region which explains the KDP offensive, for they hope to cut the PKK’s supply lines between their bases in South Kurdistan and the regions of Heftanin and Bradost on the Turkish border. Once again, the spectre of fratricidal war hangs over Kurdistan.

Since then, several villages in Chamanke District remain cut off from the outside world. Over the phone, an inhabitant of Bakurman, who prefers to remain anonymous, related as follows: “Our village is totally isolated, caught between the forces of the PKK and the Peshmerga. We can’t even drive down the road to buy food.” As for the Mayor of Chamanke, whom we met in the municipal centre of the town, he declared: “The Peshmerga are fighting off an aggression, we don’t want to get involved in the fighting, but we are prepared to defend ourselves if the PKK continue their provocations.” On the other hand, the PKK flatly denies these accusations, and the KCK4 spokesperson, Zagros Hiwa, reminds us that the PKK is defending its positions against a KDP offensive aimed at destabilising the guerrilla with an eye to facilitating another Turkish advance in the region.

“All my friends are in gaol”

The KDP’s hostile campaign against the PKK is the corollary of an effort to muzzle dissident voices carried out by the KDP’s security forces: arresting journalists sympathetic to the PKK, intimidating anyone hostile to the Barzanis’ collaboration with Turkey, preventing any on-line debate over the RGK’s position regarding the establishment of Turkish bases in Kurdistan. In Sheladize, an activist explains that since the beginning of the confrontation in Chamanke, the security services have arrested most of the region’s social network activists. “I’m afraid to go out, all my friends are in gaol. No one can speak freely anymore,” a young man tells us. He had taken part last year in an attack on a Turkish base by an angry crowd protesting the death of six civilians in a Turkish strike on the town.

After that, the KDP had already cracked down on activists guilty of criticising too sharply the collusion between the Barzani clan and the Turks.

Baghdad has deployed Iraqi guards along the frontier , for the first time since the first Gulf War. But this has done nothing to reduce the tension, far from it. Turkey had had no qualms about targeting Iraqi army commanders after a meeting they had had with PKK cadres. Quite recently, two more Iraqi border guards died in a Turkish air strike. “Turkey never owns up to these exactions and blunders” a representative of the NGO Human Rights Watch explained. “All our solicitations and entreaties go unanswered.”

Sheladize area
Sheladize area

The future seems dismal indeed for the Kurdish population of Iraq, caught in a vice between an implacable Turkish operation, a guerrilla movement determined to preserve its foothold and an authoritarian Kurdish leadership. While the imminent arrival of Joe Biden in the White House suggests the possibility of a less chaotic US foreign policy in the offing with a more nuanced consideration of the Kurdish issue, it will be a long way to go before there is an end to the Turkish army’s presence in Iraqi Kurdistan. In his most nationalistic speeches, President Erdoğan never fails to remind his listeners that Mosul province, of which Iraqi Kurdistan is a part, should long ago have been incorporated into the Turkish State. Which explains why Turkey is investing so heavily in these military operations instead of tackling the problem of recognizing the civil and cultural rights of its own Kurdish community.

1Name changed at her request.

2An analyst working for a local NGO in Iraqi Kurdistan tells us that the PKK has actually suffered far heavier losses than it declares: “On one occasion, for example, with just one strike on a single building, over fifty fighters were killed by a Turkish missile, which was neither reported by the media or announced by the PKK,” she told us under cover of anonymity. I myself saw the destruction of a home in Sarkan, a village near Qandil, where several fighters died with their families during an exceptional get-together in March 2018.

3A Kurdish word meaning “to kill one’s brother” and which has an especially pejorative connotation linked with the historic misfortune of Kurdish disunion.

4The KCK (Koma Civakên Kurdistan) is the Kurdistan Communities Union, an organisation regrouping several revolutionary political parties, including the PKK.