Turkey is invading the Kurdistan region of Iraq – and the world has hardly blinked
Valleys are vibrant with flowers and the bright green of new leaves, and the skies over Iraqi Kurdistan echo with Turkish fighter jets and heavy artillery, while Turkish helicopters ferry in Turkish soldiers. Spring in Kurdistan has long been the season for Turkish offensives, but in the last couple of years these have taken on a new destructive intensity, with Turkey sending in its drones and, according to eyewitness accounts, resorting to chemical weapons. This year threatens to be even worse than last.
Bit by bit, Turkey has been invading, and effectively colonising, large areas of a sovereign neighbouring state, but their attacks have been deemed hardly worthy of a headline, let alone international censor. Indeed, Turkey acts with Western knowledge and approval. As a strategic NATO ally, Turkey is exempt from criticism, but – more than that – Turkey has dressed up its invasion as a fight against terrorism. The ostensible targets of its attacks are the bases of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Iraqi mountains; and the United States and its allies have followed Turkey’s lead and their own political prejudices to label the PKK as a terrorist organisation. This terrorism designation is itself under challenge, as I will explain, but it is also being used as an excuse for actions that are aimed at much more than eliminating the PKK.
What Turkey is attempting, is the reestablishment of parts of its former Ottoman empire. President Erdoğan has made no secret of his imperialist plans to disregard borders agreed 99 years ago and take a swathe of Iraq and Syria under his control. And, as economic difficulties pull down his poll-rating, he has become even more ready to garner popular support by appealing to nationalist sentiments.
In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Turkey has established a vast network of military bases, at the expense of both the local population and the natural environment. Turkish attacks have forced the emptying – or near emptying – of hundreds of villages and the displacement of thousands of people, as well as injuries and deaths of civilians. The attacks have resulted in the destruction or abandonment of orchards, vineyards, and apiaries, and the burning of thousands of acres of farmland, and have had a serious impact on the region’s agricultural production. As in the Kurdish areas within Turkey’s borders, the Turkish army has also deliberately destroyed acres of forest. This is partly to impede guerrilla activity, partly to loot the timber, but also a deliberate destruction of the Kurdish landscape because of the value placed on it by Kurdish culture. The Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq concluded last June, “While Turkey claims to target the PKK… the reality is that civilians living in the border regions are most critically impacted by Turkey’s bombings.”
Turkey’s invasion of Iraq is much more than a “counter-terrorism operation”, and – as mentioned – the designation of the PKK as a terrorist organisation is being questioned too. Legally, as ruled by the Belgian courts, the PKK is a non-state actor in an armed conflict against the Turkish state– and so liable to the rules of war, not criminal law. The PKK has been signed up to the Geneva Convention since 1995. They have long been seeking a peace agreement that would allow Kurds in Turkey to live with dignity, and have instigated many ceasefires in the hopes of seeing a negotiated solution. They also played a major role in freeing Iraq and Syria from ISIS. International law allows a role for liberation movements; however, the United States and its friends will not allow a role for a movement that defines itself against liberal democracy and that is actively engaged in building an alternative communitarian society with grass-roots democracy. The United States may have found themselves in a tactical military alliance with Syria-based groups that also follow the ideas of PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, but they have not relaxed their opposition to Öcalan and the PKK, and this guides their – characteristically destructive – interventions in the region.
What makes this year’s Turkish offensive especially dangerous is the potential role of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which dominates the Kurdistan Regional Government. Although the Turkish government has always been implacably ethnic-nationalist and anti-Kurdish, the KDP’s own power games have tied them increasingly closely to Turkey, both economically and militarily, so that they have become little more than vassals of the Turkish state. This relationship was made manifest in last Friday’s visit to Erdoğan, in Istanbul, by the Kurdistan Regions’ Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani. The photograph shows Erdoğan enthroned on a large chair flanked by Turkish flags, while the visiting delegation is lined up below him. The KDP, which has its own peshmerga forces, has helped Turkey fight the PKK in the past. In last year’s offensive, they played a supporting role, providing Turkey with intelligence and protecting Turkish forces, while largely avoiding direct engagement with the PKK themselves. This time there are fears that they will become even more actively involved.
The PKK have had bases in Iraq since taking up arms against the Turkish state in the early 1980s, and especially since they were thrown out of Syria in 1998. They have been there since before the Kurdistan Region of Iraq won international recognition as an autonomous entity, when the KDP, too, saw themselves as unrecognised freedom fighters. Initially the KDP and PKK made an understanding, but that didn’t last long. The conservative, tribal, KDP, with its neoliberal economics, could hardly be more different from the PKK politically, and it is widely praised and supported by the United States and many European countries. (This week Masrour Barzani is in London to strengthen ties with the UK.) History shows the KDP to be without scruples in the alliances it has made in order to build and maintain power, and, under the Barzanis, the region’s hard-won autonomy has been given away.
The fear now is that Turkey will orchestrate a back-flag operation that can be blamed on the PKK so that the KDP can come in and not look as though they have attacked other Kurds without provocation. Many people are concerned that Turkey will succeed in inciting an intra-Kurdish war. This might allow leading members of the Barzani family, which dominates the KDP, to further enlarge their already obscene fortunes, but, otherwise, the only winner would be Turkey, with its imperial ambitions. Such a war would bring even more destruction of lives and livelihoods, and more instability in an already volatile region.
The Iraqi government might be expected to protest Turkey’s invasion of their territory, but they are weak and divided, and can manage little more than a few symbolic statements. They also appear to be using the Turkish attack as cover for their own attacks on the Yazidis in Şengal, who want to maintain Şengal’s autonomy.
Meanwhile, war in Ukraine has played into Turkey’s hands. The search for alternatives to Russian gas has led to discussions of new contracts for gas from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, exported through Turkey. And the wider world is even less likely to notice, or be concerned by, Turkey’s invasion, especially while Turkey enjoys the importance bestowed by its strategic geography, and uses its links with both sides of the Ukraine war to pose as a peacemaker.
Turkey’s offensive in Iraq is being carried out at the same time as Turkey is ramping up its aggression in Syria and within its own borders. It is increasing its ceasefire-breaking attacks in Rojava (which have included bombing Assyrian Christian villages over Easter); and it is using the government-controlled judiciary to imprison Kurdish MPs and to shut down the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which campaigns for Kurdish rights. This ramping up of aggression on all fronts has been interpreted as part of Erdoğan’s campaign for the crucial general and presidential elections that must take place by June 2023. The leader of the main opposition People’s Republican Party has tail-ended the government and tweeted his support for the Iraq operation. Turkey has always systematically deprived Kurds of their right to express their Kurdish identity, and of their right to protest this deprivation through political means. It is this systematic and perpetual denial of rights that has led some Kurds to take up the armed struggle. In blocking all democratic channels, Turkey’s policies deny them a peaceful alternative.
For the best part of four bloody decades, Turkish governments have attempted, without success, to crush Kurdish demands through military means. In 2013 to 2015, peace negotiations were generating hope until Erdoğan made a U-turn and denied any agreement had been reached. If the US and their friends really want to see an end to the war with the PKK, they need to stop supporting military destruction and work for a return to the negotiating table
Kurds everywhere – including very many people in Iraq who are angry at the role being played by their government – are very concerned about what is happening. There have been protests in European cities, where an oft-repeated chant is the call for a political solution for Kurdistan. Kurds in Scotland are preparing a protest too – check out the Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan (SSK) Facebook page for details. SSK is asking people to write to their MPs to call on them to raise concerns with the UK Government. As SSK co-convenor, Stephen Smellie points out, “This an invasion by Turkey of a neighbouring state. Turkey, a member of NATO, who have condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is acting with the support of the UK and other NATO members.” A lot more people should be getting angry about this.
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