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Turkish Operation Increases Conflict Among Kurds in Iraq

Syrian Kurds demonstrate, June 10, 2021, in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli against the Turkish offensive on Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) areas in northern Iraq.
Syrian Kurds demonstrate, June 10, 2021, in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli against the Turkish offensive on Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) areas in northern Iraq.

In recent weeks, Turkey has intensified its military operation against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) bases in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, leading to skirmishes and increased tensions between two significant armed Kurdish groups in the mountainous enclave.

While the possibility of another Kurdish civil war such as the one Iraqi Kurds witnessed in the 1990s seems remote, the deaths of several Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers in an alleged PKK attack earlier this month have raised alarms among observers. The slain officers were affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which rules the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north.

The source of the renewed tension, analysts say, is escalation by the Turkish military, which has deployed ground troops and sophisticated weapons such as drones, and pressured PKK militants to seek safer hideouts under the KRG's jurisdiction. The PKK blames the KRG for advancing its troops to areas long understood to be PKK zones.

"Relations between KRG and PKK have always been delicate, but not as dangerously threatened as they are today," said Ceng Sagnic, a Washington-based analyst on Kurdish affairs who previously served as the coordinator for the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center in Tel Aviv.

"Borders of territorial control in the Kurdistan Region have dramatically shifted, making both Kurdish sides stay alert against each other for the first time in almost 25 years," he told VOA.

On June 5, the KRG accused the PKK of killing five of its soldiers in their armored vehicle in the Duhok province, about 100 kilometers from the Turkish border.

The PKK, designated as a terrorist group by Washington and Ankara, provided mixed signals on what transpired. It first said the car failed to heed its fighters' warnings, and then it denied its involvement outright, saying the car might have exploded from a land mine or Turkish airstrikes.

'Intra-Kurdish war'

The KRG, which has long promoted itself as a pro-Western, safe, business-friendly and oil-rich region of Iraq, has said that it's not interested in war with the PKK.

"We in no way want an intra-Kurdish war," said Jotiar Adil, the KRG's official spokesperson, in an interview with Kurdish broadcaster Rudaw last week. "The Kurdistan Region will not be party to any fight."

Similarly, the PKK recently announced that it is opposed to fighting other Kurdish groups it disagrees with.

Despite both parties' stated desires to avoid conflict, Sagnic says the situation could get out of control as tensions remain high and the PKK accuses the KRG of sharing intelligence with Turkey about PKK fighters' locations. KRG has denied the allegation.

"Although KRG has refrained from launching offensives against PKK despite earlier skirmishes, larger-scale engagements between the two sides can even be sparked accidentally in such a chaotic military situation," he said.

Makhmour refugee camp

Things could get even more complicated if Turkey proceeds with its plans to attack the Makhmour refugee camp, which houses more than 10,000 Kurds from Turkey near Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The United Nations built the camp in 1998 to accommodate Kurds fleeing increased violence in southeast Turkey.

Earlier this month, a Turkish airstrike killed three people near the camp, leading to condemnations from the United States and other countries.

"Yesterday, I made clear to Turkish officials that any attack targeting civilians at Makhmour refugee camp would be a violation of international and humanitarian law," said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in a June 5 tweet.

"I'm deeply concerned about violence near the camp today and call on all sides to respect the rights of refugees," she wrote.

Turkey views Makhmour camp residents as potential PKK members rather than refugees.

"We now care about the Makhmour issue as much as Qandil," said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 1 in a live interview with the country's state-owned broadcaster TRT.

Qandil is a rugged mountain region connecting Kurdish communities in Iraq and Iran and has become a sanctuary for the PKK.

Erdogan added: "Why? Because Makhmour is Qandil's incubation nest. This incubation nest is growing in the city center. If we do not go after it, this incubation nest will continue to reproduce."

Last week, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was more direct, reiterating his president's threat to attack the camp. "You need to clean this place," he told TRT, referring to authorities overseeing the camp. "If you can't, we'll do it."

The Turkey-PKK conflict is estimated to have killed at least 40,000 people. Most of the victims have been Kurds.

Some experts suggest that Erdogan's objectives in the ongoing operation extend beyond security.

"On the domestic front, during one of the worst economic downturns in Turkey's history, the rally-around-the-flag effect of military operations targeting the PKK help Turkey's ruling coalition slow down the ongoing erosion of its voter support," said Aykan Erdemir, director of the Turkey Program at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former member of the Turkish parliament.

Erdemir said that Erdogan also wanted to undermine the political entity that the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces had established in northern Syria.

"Since Ankara also perceives the growing self-rule capacity of the Syrian Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council in northeast Syria as an existential threat, the Turkish military's control of a greater swath of land in northern Iraq also serves as a countermeasure against Syrian Kurdish ambitions," he added.

Syrian Kurds lead the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance that has played a critical role in the fight against the Islamic State terror group. Ankara views SDF as an extension of the PKK.