Iraqi Kurdistan caught in the war between Turkey and the rebels

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Baghdad (AFP) – After an artillery bombardment killed nine people in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghdad called for the withdrawal of Turkish forces and said that Ankara should settle its “internal problems” with the PKK rebels far from the Iraqi borders .

But with Turkey as a regional economic, military and diplomatic powerhouse, can a weakened Iraq pull itself out of the decades-old war between Ankara and Kurdish rebels?

AFP returns to the issues:

What is the Turkish presence?

Over the past 25 years, the Turkish army has maintained around 40 outposts in the Kurdish north of Iraq, where it has carried out several operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara and its Western allies call it a “terrorist” organization.

The rebels have been fueling a deadly insurgency for Kurdish autonomy in southeastern Turkey since 1984. They rely on rear bases and training camps hidden in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkey also sees the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in neighboring Syria as an extension of the PKK and has also launched offensives there.

“Since 2020, Turkey’s airstrikes and ground military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq have intensified,” said Shivan Fazil of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The numbers are hard to verify, but open sources say Turkey has “a permanent deployment of 5,000 to 10,000 troops on Iraqi territory”, according to analysis by Salim Cevik published by the German Institute for International Affairs and of security.

“Today, most military conflicts between the Turkish military and the PKK take place on Iraqi and Syrian soil,” Cevik wrote, noting that “the use of drones in particular has proven to be very effective in limiting the logistics and maneuverability of the PKK in the region”. “

Civilians are caught in the crossfire, including on Wednesday when all nine – including women and children – were killed.

Iraq blamed Turkey, which denied its troops were responsible and blamed the PKK.

“The shelling and shelling has repeatedly caused civilian casualties, destroyed homes and livelihoods, causing the displacement of villagers,” Fazil said.

What are the wider implications?

Baghdad wants Turkish forces out of its territory, but for that to happen, Fazil said Ankara “could demand that the Iraqi government expel the PKK.”

“Does the Iraqi government have the ability to reassert this kind of territorial sovereignty over its borders and expel armed non-state actors? Fazil asked.

Iraq has only an interim government, as nine months after the elections political parties have failed to agree on the formation of a new administration. The country is plagued by corruption and is trying to overcome decades of war and unrest.

The issue has ramifications far beyond Iraq’s borders. Turkey, a member of NATO, has requested the extradition of dozens of suspected “terrorists” from Finland and Sweden in order to ratify their candidacy for the alliance.

Turkey is also threatening a new offensive against the People’s Protection Units in Syria. They are the main component of the Kurds’ de facto autonomous army, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has provided crucial aid to a US-led coalition against the Islamic State group’s jihadists.

The angry protests that erupted in Iraq after the deaths of the nine civilians also touched on another source of tension. Iraqis blame Turkish dams for reducing water flow in rivers in their parched country.

That anger is likely to be short-lived, said Marsin Alshamary of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative.

“I think public anger will translate into a boycott of goods and travel, but I don’t think that will last until more Iraqis die,” she said, noting the economic relationship driven on the consumer between the two countries.

“Iraqis are the second largest group of foreign owners in Turkey.”

Intra-Kurdish tensions?

In Iraqi Kurdistan, fighting has moved from the border into Iraqi territory and populated areas.

But it’s hard for the region to blame Ankara, given their significant economic ties – particularly the need for oil from Iraqi Kurdistan to pass through Turkish pipelines on the way to export markets.

There are also tensions between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), whose stronghold is the regional capital Arbil, and the PKK.

Fazil noted skirmishes between the two armed groups in 2020 and last year, heightening fears of open conflict.

“The PKK accuses the KDP of aiding Turkey’s operations,” the researcher said, while the latter insists that the rebels’ presence in the Kurdistan region of Iraq “invites attacks from Turkey.”