The Iraq Report: Northern Iraq engulfed in battle once again

7 min read
05 May, 2022

While Iraq has never been totally free of armed conflict since the United States led an illegal invasion of the country in 2003, it has seen lulls in the violence, particularly recently in northern Iraq.

However, a number of intersecting military operations have now shattered any semblance of calm as the Iraqi military clashes with Yazidi militias in Sinjar and Turkey launched new operations to root out Kurdish Marxist militants hiding out in Iraq’s mountains.

Adding to the conflict is the returning spectre of proxy wars, as a newly declassified Pentagon report indicates that Iran has been actively supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known as the PKK, against Turkey.

This news comes despite Tehran’s long-standing public statements of ‘brotherhood’ with Ankara, leading to the possibility of enhanced tensions between the two regional powers who have often avoided outright rivalry.

"A number of intersecting military operations have now shattered any semblance of calm as the Iraqi military clashes with Yazidi militias in Sinjar and Turkey launched new operations against the PKK"

Turkey faces Iran-backed PKK in Kurdistan

Turkish forces have continued their latest military incursion into northern Iraq aiming to target, destroy, and dislodge the PKK from their bases in Iraq’s mountains.

The operation, code-named Operation Claw-Lock, began on 18 April and a mere two days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with the prime minister of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masrour Barzani, in the Turkish capital Ankara.

During the talks, Erdogan welcomed deeper security cooperation with the KRG, indicating previous cooperation with the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia that acts as the armed force of the Kurdish enclave.

The Peshmerga associated with Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) mainly played perimeter defence roles as Turkish forces battled PKK militants in northern Iraq. The KDP and PKK, despite both having their origins as Kurdish separatist movements in Iraq and Turkey respectively, have radically different ideologies and are bitter rivals.

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Claw-Lock will target the Metina, Zap, and Avashin-Basyan regions of northern Iraq, according to Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar.

Although Claw-Lock occurred mere days after Erdogan’s meeting with Barzani – which is being perceived as active KRG acquiescence to the Turkish operation – officials in Baghdad were less than enthused, accusing Ankara of “violating Iraqi sovereignty” and calling on Turkish troops to depart.

In response, Turkey summoned the Iraqi charge d’affaires to express its dismay at the Iraqi government’s “unfounded allegations”, stressing that Ankara was merely pursuing “terrorists” with the agreement of the KRG authorities.

From Turkey’s perspective, the Iraqi federal authorities have done far too little to dissuade the PKK from utilising Iraqi soil to conduct attacks against Turkey.

Added to the problem is the fact that the territory in which the PKK traditionally operates is controlled by the KRG, which is not a monolithic entity but is in fact a highly partisan administration with rival Kurdish groups each jockeying for control.

This also means that an Iraqi military deployment to curtail the PKK’s activities, even if Baghdad was inclined to do so, would have to take place in coordination with the KRG – cooperation which is very unlikely to be forthcoming.

Iraqi army Anbar - Getty
The Iraqi army launched a large operation to take over Sinjar and surrounding areas from the control of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS). [Getty]

Further complicating matters is the fact that the Iranians have had long-standing ties to the PKK, and have used Iraqi territory to ensure Turkish interests are harried and prevented as Tehran views any encroachment by any other power, including Ankara, as a zero-sum game of influence lost and gained.

Iraq is of such crucial importance to Iran’s wider regional agenda and grand strategy that it will jealously guard its control over Iraqi affairs to the detriment of any would-be interlopers. This includes Tehran deploying its legion of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Iraqi Shia proxies, as well as Kurdish separatists such as the PKK.

This despite the fact that Iran routinely suppresses and oppresses its own Kurdish minority, yet has actively played a role in Iraq’s and Turkey’s restive separatist Kurdish groups for decades to destabilise those it views as potential rivals.

Although this has been noted amongst historians and experts for decades, this has found very recent support in a declassified US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report released earlier this month that assessed that Iran-aligned militias would “continue to coordinate with the [PKK], a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, in response to Turkish air…strikes on PKK positions”.

What this means is that, although Iran has been known to coordinate and cooperate with the PKK for decades, it has continued that relationship and has seemingly never stopped.

This will be of considerable concern to Ankara, which has launched several operations in both Iraq and Syria to secure its borders against the threat posed to it by the PKK and its sister organisations.

"From Turkey's perspective, the Iraqi federal authorities have done far too little to dissuade the PKK from utilising Iraqi soil to conduct attacks against Turkey"

Yazidis flee as Iraqi army battles YBS

One such related organisation is the Sinjar Protection Units, better known by their Kurdish acronym YBS – a Yazidi militia that was founded in 2007 to protect the Yazidi minority against other armed Islamist factions.

Occurring almost simultaneously with Turkey’s Claw-Lock, the Iraqi government has dispatched regular army units to forcibly evict the YBS from Sinjar in northern Iraq. However, this move is likely to face complications, not least of which is Baghdad’s criticism of Ankara and the fact the YBS has links to the Iraqi armed forces.

While several Shia militias close to Iran have criticised and threatened Turkey due to its operations, and Iraqi ministers have closely followed suit, Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has ordered army units loyal to him into the region to placate Turkish anger and as part of a deal between him, Erdogan, and Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP, that will shore up his own domestic political position.

Kadhimi is seeking a second term in office and, while he has been unable to defy Iran or his rivals who control other militias, he wants enough leverage to ensure that he is part of any conversation on the formation of Iraq’s next government – a process that has been ongoing since October last year.

This complicates matters as factions within the YBS are merged into the Popular Mobilisation Forces’ (PMF) 80thRegiment which, technically, means that the Iraqi military has been deployed against other constituent elements of the Iraqi military.

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The PMF is largely an umbrella group of pro-Iran militias, most of whom are Shia, that was formally merged into the command structure of the armed forces following two laws passed in 2016 and 2017. They also enjoy a proportion of the national defence budget.

The fighting has now led to 3,000 Yazidis being displaced.

Sinjar is important due to its proximity to major Iraqi cities such as Mosul, KRG-controlled territory, and two official and unofficial border crossings into Syria that have been used extensively by Iran to move men and weapons over the border to control territory ostensibly on behalf of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Sinjar has also been the site of numerous atrocities, including the Islamic State’s brutal campaign against the Yazidis, classified by the UN as a genocide, which saw more than 5,000 killed and thousands of women and children enslaved and raped, and the massacre of Sunni Arabs in the surrounding area by Yazidi and Shia militias.

Not long after IS was defeated in 2017, the YBS – with assistance from the PKK – established a foothold in Sinjar and more or less enjoyed unofficial autonomy as neither the KRG nor Baghdad could dislodge them without a war.

"Not long after IS was defeated in 2017, the YBS – with assistance from the PKK – established a foothold in Sinjar and more or less enjoyed unofficial autonomy"

However, and perhaps seeing an opportunity in Turkey’s latest operation, both the KRG and Baghdad will seek to implement the terms of a joint-control agreement that was hashed out in 2020, dividing administration of the province between the two governments.

However, the YBS and PKK alliance has stood in the way of this in the past, and the threat of losing ready access to the border crossing may force Iran to pressure its allies to accept Kadhimi for another term in office.

With this complex web of politics and military power converging on Sinjar, it appears clear that Iraq is once again being used as a chessboard for regional and domestic ambitions to be played out among rivals who may eventually cut a new deal.

This means that stability and security will still be a distant dream to most Iraqis, particularly those who have had to flee their homes several times now. Without stability, there can be no peace, and without peace, there is likely to be yet another large-scale outbreak of war in the near future.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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The Iraq Report