The Iraq Report: Turkey threatens to invade Iraq

The Iraq Report: Turkey threatens to invade Iraq
Our weekly round-up of the latest from Iraq.
8 min read
30 March, 2018
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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Although Turkish-Iraqi relations have improved dramatically since the Iraqi Kurdish independence bid late last year, things appear to be heating up again as Ankara has threatened a military intervention in Sinjar, northern Iraq.

Citing threats to its national security, Turkey has announced that it intends to militarily neutralise Kurdish militants in Iraq near its border, while Iraq has declared that it would not tolerate breaches of its sovereignty.

The Islamic State group has meanwhile been able to maintain its low intensity - but no less deadly - operations in Iraq, raising concerns that Baghdad's strategy for dealing with the militants is at best faltering and at worst failing. Iraq's human rights record is once again in the spotlight as its tactics for dealing with IS are being questioned, and may in fact be leading to the strengthening of the radical group.

Pursuing the PKK, Turkey threatens an invasion

Throughout the war against the Islamic State group, both Turkey and Iraq were publicly at loggerheads over a Turkish military base at Bashiqa in northern Iraq. According to Baghdad, Turkish forces were not welcome in the fight against IS and efforts to recapture Mosul despite their membership within the US-led coalition.

Ankara, on the other hand, insisted that its soldiers were there providing support to the Kurdish Peshmerga, the official armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Buoyed by its recent military success in Afrin in northern Syria, Ankara has now set its sights on other territories where the Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known by its acronym PKK, operates

Both capitals managed to mend fences over their mutual dislike of Kurdish secessionism, with Baghdad keen on quashing the results of the Kurdish independence bid last September, and Ankara fearful that a successful separatist bid would in turn encourage its own restive Kurdish population.

In coordination with Turkey and Iran, the Iraqi government managed to not only declare the independence referendum "unconstitutional", but used military power to annul the effect of the vote by rolling back all territorial gains the KRG had made in disputed territories while the Baghdad government was in disarray. This included the loss of the "Kurdish Jerusalem", oil-rich Kirkuk.

However, and buoyed by its recent military success in Afrin in northern Syria, Ankara has now set its sights on other territories where the Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known by its acronym PKK, operates.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced last Sunday that his armed forces had already started military operations in Sinjar, which has been occupied by several PKK-linked component groups, including the YBS Yazidi militant group, since Iraqi forces fled the IS advance in 2014. According to Erdogan, this showed that his country "fights terrorists at home and abroad", while stressing that Turkish soldiers were there to fight terrorists and not occupy land.

Although Baghdad had announced last Wednesday that it had agreed to Turkey carrying out operations against PKK militants in areas near the shared border, a deeper incursion into Sinjar has raised concerns in the Iraqi capital, leading Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to mobilise troops to the region on Monday.

Major General Najim al-Jubouri has led Iraqi armoured divisions into Sinjar, and Baghdad hopes that such moves will deter a Turkish military intervention. The idea behind the Iraqi operation is to show that the federal government has now extended its rule over territories that were disputed with Kurdish leaders, and that Baghdad would maintain security and prevent anti-Turkish elements from operating against Ankara within Iraq.


Despite the more assertive military posture, Iraqi leaders are attempting to maintain their better relations with Turkey by jointly demanding - along with Iraqi Kurdish leaders - PKK militants to leave. This has led to the PKK announcing its withdrawal from Sinjar, but this is unlikely to placate Turkey, as the YBS has insisted it will remain.

This may yet cause tensions between Iraq and Turkey, as the YBS is not only thought to be a local proxy of the PKK, but also a component militia of the Iraqi government-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces, or Hashd al-Sha'abi in Arabic.

The myth of Kurdish military effectiveness exposed

Although Kurdish forces have been repeatedly lauded as the "most effective fighters" against IS extremists over the past several years, the myth of Kurdish military effectiveness has now been laid bare.

A wide array of armed Kurdish groups have been supported by the US-led coalition, receiving arms, munitions and training in order to serve as ground troops against seasoned IS militants who just a few years ago managed to conquer large swathes of Syria and Iraq. These Kurdish organisations supported by the coalition ranged from groups linked to the PKK, as well as more official forces such as the KRG's Peshmerga.

However, a series of embarrassing defeats and withdrawals has raised questions about just how effective these Kurdish armed groups really are.

The mere threat of a Turkish incursion into Sinjar has caused the PKK to announce that it would withdraw its fighters from the region, saying they were only there in the first place to save the Yazidi population from IS predations.

Now that the Yazidis had been sufficiently protected, the PKK declared, their mission was complete and therefore there was no more need for their presence. However, the Yazidis and their villages have been secured for a long time now, so the PKK's announcement that it would withdraw could be assessed as its way of avoiding another Afrin.

The Yazidis themselves have little good to say about the Peshmerga, the KRG's armed forces, whom they blame for abandoning them when IS first advanced in 2014, raping, killing and pillaging their way through Yazidi settlements in Sinjar. While the KRG has long claimed Sinjar as part of the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Peshmerga's failure to protect those they claim should be under their rule did little for their reputation.

The success of the Kurdish Peshmerga came after overwhelming US-led airpower was utilised to devastating effect, stopping mobile IS columns in their tracks, reducing their ability to use buildings for situational advantage during urban warfare, and providing detailed intelligence of their positions. It was arguably in this way that the Peshmerga managed to not only take but to hold ground against battle-hardened IS militants.

However, that mirage was swiftly shattered in October last year, when the United States failed to come to the aid of the KRG when it faced the Iraqi army and allied pro-Iran Shia militias - all of whom were recipients of US military support. Where the Peshmerga appeared invincible against IS thanks to US air superiority, they lost Kirkuk to Iraqi forces in less than a day.

They were similarly rolled up and forced to flee their positions across every front where they faced federal forces, losing some 40 percent of their territory in a matter of days.

These embarrassing defeats shattered the myth of Kurdish military effectiveness, and also gave the KRG's leadership a reality check, particularly regarding the prospects of a successful attempt to secede from Iraq. Kurdish politicians are now in a position where they are attempting to salvage what they can of their autonomy while remaining part of a federal Iraqi system.

IS still active as Iraq continues mass arrests

Reports have indicated that Iraq has incarcerated more than 19,000 people on suspicion of connections with IS or other terrorism-related offences, sentencing more than 3,000 of them to death. The speed and scale of the mass imprisonments - as well as Iraq's historical problems with an independent judiciary - have raised concerns over miscarriages of justice that may perpetuate the IS problem or lead to the creation of new extremist groups.

The numbers are based on an analysis by The Associated Press of a spreadsheet listing 27,849 people imprisoned as of late January this year. Thousands more are being held by other government and non-government bodies, including Shia militias allied to the military, the federal police forces, and other interior ministry-sanctioned militants who maintain their own unofficial prison networks.

Fears that Baghdad's heavy-handed tactics may exacerbate IS extremism appear to be well-founded

Human Rights Watch warned last November that the broad use of terrorism laws had led to those with minimal links to IS being tried and executed alongside more hardcore terrorists who were involved in committing atrocities. For instance, merely being related to an IS militant could be grounds for incarceration and interrogation leading to human rights abuses, and a deeply flawed judicial process.

Fears that Baghdad's heavy-handed tactics may exacerbate IS extremism appear to be well-founded, as the militant group has continued to successfully attack Iraqi security forces and allied militias, despite Prime Minister Abadi declaring the group defeated last December.

A recent example is IS' abduction and execution of ten police officers near Kirkuk last Saturday. Images shared online showed the police officers being executed by IS militants. However, Iraqi police told AP on Sunday that only nine federal police officers were abducted and killed by IS militants, who had disguised themselves as Shia militiamen.

Baghdad's best hope to deal with IS militancy is to secure the cooperation of local communities. However, and as things stand now, these local communities are being criminalised and treated as suspects just for being from the same area as IS militants. Without government outreach to its citizens, this problem is likely to continue and fester.


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