Turkey-PKK escalation risks engulfing new areas of Iraq

Turkey-PKK escalation risks engulfing new areas of Iraq
Turkey’s recent strikes in Sinjar threaten a broadening of Turkey-PKK conflict that could engulf new areas of Iraq.
4 min read
28 April, 2017
KRG authorities blamed the PKK directly for destabilising the region [Getty]
In a first since the conflict reignited between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers' Party [PKK], Turkish warplanes flew deeper than before into Iraqi territory to strike PKK-targets in the Sinjar region in the north of the country on Tuesday.

The strikes had also accidently killed five five Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, whose forces are commanded by the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG], itself allied with Turkey's AK-party led government and hostile to the PKK.

In the aftermath of Tuesday's strikes, major consternations were voiced by local politicians that the escalation in the Turkey-PKK conflict risks engulfing new areas in an already highly volatile region.

While KRG authorities blamed the PKK directly for destabilising the region and repeated their demand for a complete PKK withdrawal, news of the Turkish strike on Sinjar as well as in northern Syria was also met by strong concern by US authorities.

The strikes began around 2:30 am local time, according to Sinjar Mayor Mahma Khalil, killing five members of the Peshmerga forces and wounding nine.

"Around 20 strikes were fired by three Turkish warplanes, which entered Iraqi airspace from the Faysh Khabur on Tuesday morning, targeting three buildings and two PKK sites, as well as a small building believed to be a weapons hub belonging to the PKK," a Kurdish official in Erbil told The New Arab. 

Although the PKK denied causalities, Duhok hospital received a number of bodies and wounded PKK militants, who threatened to shoot anyone filming to trying to take photographs, a source in the hospital said.

The strikes lead to an immediate reaction from KRG who demanded a withdrawal of PKK militants from Sinjar, which it blamed for the causing the attack while also labelling the Turkish strikes on Peshmerga forces as unacceptable.

Peshmerga ministry spokesman Halgurd Hikmat reiterated the demand for a PKK withdrawal from the Sinjar region, saying "the PKK must stop destabilising and escalating tensions in the area".

While blame for the escalation was placed firmly on PKK militants, Hikmat also called on Turkey to "deal more sensitively with this issue, because Kurdistan should become a player in the conflict of others".

"For over a year we have said that the Peshmerga forces and the Kurdistan region do not want to be part of this conflict," Hikmat added.

"The presence of PKK fighters in Sinjar is a dangerous threat to the region, and the Turkish attacks will continue because Iraq is weak and cannot protect its territory."

The growing PKK presence in the Sinjar resulted from the aftermath of the infamous IS militant group's assault against the Yazidis of Sinjar in 2014 which culminated in the Sinjar massacre and the mass enslavement of Yazidi women.

Sinjar was fully reclaimed by Kurdish fighters in November 2015 after a joint assault by KRG-forces and PKK-backed Yazidi militias with the support of US airstrikes.

However, the PKK's continued presence and organisation among the Yazidis of Sinjar led to increasing hostility between the PKK and the KRG.

Firefights for control of areas around the city erupted in March of this year between Peshmerga and PKK-aligned militias. The KRG has repeatedly called for the PKK to withdraw from the region.

Tuesday's attack by the Turkish air force against Sinjar marks a major development in the ongoing conflict as previous Turkish incursions into Iraqi territory were generally limited to border regions.

The strikes come on the heels of reports that claim Turkey is planning a comprehensive cross-border military incursion to oust PKK fighters from Sinjar.

Kurdish leader and member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party Hama Amin told The New Arab "the arrival of Turkish forces to Sinjar, which the PKK expected to be a safe haven for them, is a big turning point in the conflict.

"The KRG demands the expulsion of PKK militants from the area. We consider them a virus that bring bombing and destruction with them wherever they go."

The issue of the broadening escalation has also been raised in the Iraqi capital.

"Baghdad is likely to summon the Turkish ambassador over the incident, but no stronger action will be taken," an Iraqi minister, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The New Arab.

"Ankara already told Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi they will target PKK militants even in Baghdad."

The minister expected Tuesday's airstrikes to be "only the beginning of more similar operations until Baghdad works on removing PKK militants from northern Iraqi cities."