On Sunday night, the northern mountains of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq came under heavy bombardment from Turkish warplanes and howitzers, and Turkish helicopters ferried in soldiers as Turkey launched its anticipated attack on the PKK’s guerrilla bases. But it is not only the guerrillas in their mountain tunnels that are under attack. The Kurds and the Kurdish freedom movement are under attack across all parts of Kurdistan. And although Turkey is their biggest enemy, it is not their only enemy in what has become a complex battleground of competing powers.
While Turkey attempts to increase its foothold in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, they are also increasing their ceasefire-breaking attacks on the Autonomous Region of North and East Syria; and they are not letting go their pressure on Kurdish politicians and activists within their own borders.
Iraq itself is riven by competition for influence and control by its neighbours: Turkey and Iran. It hasn’t the power to resist Turkey’s incursions, but it has upped its own pressure on the Yazidis in Şengal, who are trying to retain their hard-won autonomy.
Syria’s Assad regime is showing no let-up in its attempt to starve the predominantly-Kurdish autonomous neighbourhoods of Aleppo – Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashafriya – into submission. This is part of a wider policy of denying access to the Autonomous areas.
Russia asserts it’s influence as the main military backer of President Assad. They have also vetoed the opening of crossings into the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria; and, although they are supposed to be ceasefire guarantors, they are happy for North and East Syria to be kept under pressure and so unable to develop in peace and security.
Iran also backs the Syrian regime – in order to extend its own influence – and is also happy to promote the destabilisation of North and East Syria.
The United States supports Turkey in its attacks on the PKK. Despite all their professions of partnership with North and East Syria’s Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that partnership is only contingent and tactical, and the US has no wish to see the successful implementation of the Autonomous Administration’s social model, which is based on the ideas of imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan.
And then there’s the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – which dominates the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. Although this is a Kurdish party that fought for Kurdish autonomy against the Iraqi government, their pursuit of power has made them so economically and politically dependent on Turkey, that they are supporting Turkey’s military invasion of their own country. The anger and disgust felt by many Kurds was summed up in the eggs hurled at the car of the KRG Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani, when he visited London on Wednesday.
Turkish attacks on all fronts
Turkey’s operation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is part of a long history of cross border incursions that began in the 1980s and have now enabled Turkey to establish a substantial network of military bases on Iraqi soil. Ostensibly, Turkey’s attacks are aimed at stopping “PKK terrorism”, though for a cross-border attack to be considered legitimate self-defence in international law it would have to be necessitated by a clear and imminent risk and by a lack of alternative options, and it would have to be proportionate. This is clearly not the case here, but it is also clear from this military occupation that Turkey has bigger interests in Iraq – and President Erdoğan has himself advertised his dreams of tearing up the 99-year-old Treaty of Lausanne and taking control of a swathe of former Ottoman territory including parts of Iraq and Syria.
Turkeys actions in Iraq constitute an invasion and occupation, and as in other invasions, the civilian population has been severely affected. There have been deaths and injuries, and wholesale destruction of local communities. The area under attack has no big centres of population, but in the last couple of years, hundreds of villages have been emptied, or nearly so, and thousands of people have been displaced. Orchards, vineyards, apiaries, and thousands of acres of farmland have been destroyed or abandoned, and huge areas of forest have been deliberately felled.
This war also has serious consequences for shepherds on the Turkish side of the border, where thousands of sheep are prevented from grazing pastures that are now declared ‘special security zones’.
There are fears that this year’s operation will be even more intensive than last, with the KDP’s peşmerga forces giving Turkey greater assistance. As one of the PKK leaders, Murat Karayılan, has pointed out, this week’s Turkish attack was launched from the south as well as the north, which is only possible with KDP permission.
For the PKK, this is a fight for survival. They have nowhere else to go. But defeating guerrilla forces in a landscape that they know intimately is not an easy task. And even if Turkey could kill all the PKK fighters, that would not kill the ideas that they are fighting for.
Other inhabitants of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq are worried too. Their hard-won autonomy is disappearing, and the Turkish power taking over control is historically against all expressions of Kurdishness. Today it is the PKK who are in Turkey’s crosshairs, but tomorrow it could be other Kurds.
Turkey’s aggression does not stop at Iraq’s border. This month has seen an intensification of attacks by Turkey and its mercenaries in North and East Syria – with no response from the supposed guarantors of the Turkish ceasefires, the United States and Russia. In Tal Tamir, which has been under constant attack for more than two years, Assyrian Christian villages were targeted over the Easter weekend, and an Assyrian soldier killed. In Zerghan (Abu Rasin), where intense bombardment since early this year has forced out much of the population, a drone attack on Monday targeted the Asayish – the internal security forces. On Wednesday, another drone targeted an Asayish centre in Qamishlo, and a drone strike on a car south of Kobanê killed three members of the YPJ, the Women’s Protection Units. On Friday, Turkish shells hit the centre of Kobanê, injuring two civilians. These are unprovoked attacks and targeted assassinations of people whose only threat to Turkey was as an example that peaceful coexistence is possible.
Turkey also appears to have lobbied successfully for the United States to row back on their plan to lift sanctions from the parts of Syria that are not under Syrian Government control. In this, Turkey was joined by the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition, which would also have benefited, but would rather continue in the sanction regime than see North and East Syria gain any relief. As has been observed many times, Ukraine has made the United States more ready to respond to Turkish demands.
The parts of Syria occupied by Turkey are treated as permanent parts of the Turkish state, where demographic change is accompanied by Turkification, including imposing Turkish as the official language of education. A newly dug trench is the first step in creating a new concrete border wall.
For those original residents who remain, life under the mercenary militias that Turkey has put in charge of these areas is a waking nightmare. A week ago, Jonathan Spyer reported on a dossier put together by human rights activists in Turkish-occupied Afrîn. He wrote, “Testimony of survivors reveals a pattern of illegal incarcerations with no judicial process or oversight, grave abuses of detainees, including sexual abuse, rape, torture and instances of murder.” And he noted, “According to two human rights bodies… 8,590 people have been held in this system of off-the-grid prisons since 2018. Of these, 1,500 have disappeared entirely, leaving no record.”
Within Turkey, the authoritarian clampdown continues, and the politicised judicial system extinguishes hopes of justice. As every week, there have been dawn raids and detentions of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) politicians and other activists – in Amed and Dersim on Wednesday, and in Doğubayazıt (where police also raided the HDP building) on Friday.
Abdülilah Poyraz, the father of Deniz Poyraz, who was murdered by an attacker who entered the HDP’s İzmir office last year, has been served an indictment. He is accused of “propagandising for a terrorist organisation” on the basis of an interview he gave on his daughter’s “martyrdom” the day after her death. While the state accuses the bereaved father of connection to “terrorism”, it refuses to carry out a proper investigation into the political links of the confessed killer.
There have also been legal irregularities – including missing video footage – in the ongoing trial for the mass murder of a family in Konya who had been facing persistent anti-Kurdish racist abuse.
The case for the closure of the HDP has proceeded to the next stage, with the HDP’s lawyers submitting their defence to the Constitutional Court on Tuesday. Lawyer Maviş Aydın commented, “We approached the indictment both as a document for pushing the HDP and the ideology it represents out of politics, and, specifically, for pushing the women’s struggle out of politics”.
The HDP is at the centre of this political lawfare, and the government is attempting to use the courts to eliminate them from politics. But the mainstream opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) is not immune from this politicised judicial system. Ekrem İmamoğlu has not been forgiven for winning the 2019 election for Mayor of Istanbul, and so ending the reign of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). He has also been mooted as a candidate to beat Erdoğan in the presidential election. He is currently being tried for “insulting the members of the Supreme Electoral Council”, and the prosecutor has called for a four-year prison sentence.
All these actions – at home and abroad – are symptomatic of a Turkish government desperate to hold onto power as their support slips away. In politics, nothing is certain, but rampant inflation has left a large proportion of the population struggling to make ends meet. Erdoğan needs to create a distraction from people’s natural anger at a government that has failed to support basic economic needs. The HDP has described Turkey’s attacks on Iraq as “a war to prolong the life of the government”.
Meanwhile, in a reminder that getting rid of Erdoğan only solves part of the problem, and of the dangerous dynamics of wartime politics, CHP leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, has tail-ended Erdoğan and tweeted his support for Turkey’s “heroic army”.
The Federal Government of Iraq
Iraq’s government is weak and lacking authority. Factional politics has ensured that six months after the last election, which was called early in response to widespread discontent and unrest, the country is still ruled by a caretaker government. Turkish influence over the KDP is countered by Iranian influence in other parts of the country.
Iraq’s foreign ministry has denied Erdoğan’s claim that Iraq collaborated in Turkeys attacks. They have expressed their dissatisfaction over Turkey’s “act of hostility” and demanded the departure of the Turkish army – and now Turkey has described the Iraqi denial as “unfounded allegation”.
Be that as it may, Iraq has increased pressure on the Yazidis in Şengal to give up their hard-won autonomy, and it is suggested that this is being done under pressure from Turkey. In October 2020, the United Nations helped make a deal between the Federal Government of Iraq and the KDP to share control of Şengal. But they, didn’t consult the Yazidis, who don’t trust these governments, who abandoned them to ISIS in 2014. With the aid of the PKK and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Rojava, who actually helped them escape from ISIS and recapture their homeland, the Yazidis have set up their own autonomous structures and defence forces, and they are trying to negotiate to keep them. This should be possible within Iraq’s federal constitution, but, instead, Iraq has chosen to try and force their surrender. The Iraqi government have been surrounding Şengal with walls and fences, and the day after the Turkish attacks, while the Yazidis prepared for their ‘Red Wednesday’ new year holiday, Iraqi forces attacked a Yazidi checkpoint. Further attacks were made on the Yazidi forces the next day. There have been hours of fighting and captures of fighters from both sides, and further escalation is expected.
The West’s favourite clan
In their pursuit of power, and now also of riches, the Barzani family, which dominates the clan politics of the KDP, seems unconcerned who they make alliances with. They also seem unbothered by endemic corruption and increasing authoritarianism. None of this has prevented Western powers from regarding the business friendly KDP as a source of hope for Iraqi stability. The KDP’s pact with Turkey has allowed them to dominate local politics and turn the region’s oil wealth into power and personal profit. The oil is exported through Turkey, which gives Turkey control as well as a very profitable deal. Despite conflicts with Bagdad about rights to the region’s oil, KRG Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani, has been discussing exports to replace Russian oil and gas, including in his meeting with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on Tuesday. When Barzani was in London, he was asked about the KDP’s support for Turkey’s attacks. As usual, he claimed that these were the fault of the PKK for being there and not staying in Turkey.
Although the KDP had a brief understanding with the PKK when both were unrecognised freedom fighters in the 1980s, and although Masood Barzani, thanked the PKK personally for their crucial role in liberating Iraq from ISIS, the KDP has generally regarded the PKK as enemies. They have no time for the PKK’s socialist communitarian politics, and resent their autonomy. Helping Turkey to fight them, suits their own aims. The KDP have their own peşmerga forces, separate from the KRG’s Ministry of Peşmerga, and it is these KDP peşmerga that are assisting Turkey.
Turkey’s attacks on Iraq have produced protests everywhere there are Kurdish communities – including in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where it is only the KDP that supports the attacks, and people in Sulaymaniyah have held a demonstration march.
Just before Turkey launched their current operation, but with an imminent attack expected, Duran Kalkan, another PKK leader, gave an interview summing up the situation. He argued that Turkey was trying to encircle and trap the guerrillas, but that the war would spread throughout Turkey.
It appears that some people have already decided to take their own actions. In Bursa, in Northwest Turkey, a bus carrying prison guards blew up in a presumed bomb explosion, killing one guard and injuring four others, one seriously. The brutality of Turkey’s prisons has become a major concern and was emphasised in Kalkan’s interview. Another bomb, in Istanbul’s Gaziosmanpaşa district, damaged the building of the Turkish Youth Foundation, which has links to the AKP and to Erdoğan’s family. The government says they have identified culprits, but no-one has claimed responsibility for either explosion.
In North and East Syria, there has been a spate of arson attacks against offices belonging to opposition parties linked to the KDP. The United States Embassy, which stayed silent while Turkey shelled villages and carried out targeted assassinations of their YPJ allies, tweeted their “deep concern”. The authorities have denied involvement, and have posted Asayish guards outside the KDP-Syria headquarters in Qamishlo.
International media has tended to ignore Turkey’s invasion altogether (The Times, The Guardian) or to base their report on Turkish government sources (Deutsche Welle, Voice of America). But there have been some more engaged responses from concerned politicians. The president of the Arab League has condemned the attacks, describing them as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. An Early Day Motion in the UK Parliament (a form of public statement) is gathering signatures of MPs. And the Kurdistan Friendship Group in the European Parliament has sent a letter to all MEPs that ends: “We ask everyone to draw attention to this illegal military attack by Turkey and the risks that it brings; and emphasise that the only solution to peace in the region lies in a renewal of negotiations – in which the PKK has shown their readiness to engage – and a political solution to the ‘Kurdish Question’.”
Many more demonstrations will be taking place across the world today.
Sarah Glynn is a writer and activist – check her website and follow her on Twitter @sarahrglynn