Turkey's threats could see Syrian and Iraqi Kurds casting aside differences

Turkey's threats could see Syrian and Iraqi Kurds casting aside differences
Analysis: Having fought a Kurdish insurgency for 40 years, Erdogan's threats are understandable, but they conflate two different situations for Kurds in Iraq and in Syria, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
28 September, 2017
Turkish and Iraqi troops have held joint military exercises near Iraq-Kurdish areas [Anadolu]

"We can arrive unannounced any night," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared on Monday, in a not-so-subtle threat to Turkey's immediate neighbour, the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, after it held a referendum on independence.

The statement echoes what the Turkish leader said to Syrian Kurds last April. Following an airstrike on a headquarters belonging to the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), Erdogan also said the Turkish military could attack any time it chooses: "Overnight, all of a sudden, without warning."

Ankara recently sent tanks to Iraqi Kurdistan's western frontier in exercises which directly coincided with the beginning and end of the referendum.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warned, upon the commencement of those sizable exercises:

"Those who are chasing dreams in Syria and Iraq should know very well that any attempt that threatens our national security, from inside or outside our borders, will be immediately retaliated [to] in kind."

  Who's who?
- KRG: The Kurdistan Regional Government, the elected body with constitutional authority over three regions of northern Iraq - Duhok, Suleimaniyah and Erbil, and de-facto control over three others - Nineveh, Salahuddin and Kirkuk
- KDP: The Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in the KRG, led by President Masoud Barzani
- PYD: The Democratic Union Party, a Kurdish political movement in Syria
- YPG: The Syrian People's Protection Units, the armed wing of the PYD
- PKK: The Kurdistan Workers' Party, a guerilla armed group fighting a four-decade war against the Turkish state for greater autonomy in Kurdish areas of Turkey
- KNC: Kurdistan National Council, an umbrella group of Syrian Kurdish parties backed by the Iraqi KDP party
- Rojava, the name given by Syrian Kurds to the areas they control in northern Syria, comprising three cantons - Jazira, Kobane and Afrin

This clearly refers both to Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish regions. Such a conflation is unsettling, given the fact that Turkey has maintained good relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government that governs over Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly with the leading Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Kurdish President Masoud Barzani.

Erdogan has himself hailed these ties in the past upon visiting Iraqi Kurdistan's capital, Erbil, in 2012.

By doing so he clearly distinguished between the KRG and Kurdish groups against whom Turkey has long fought, namely the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose armed wing is the YPG.

This distinction is more significant, given the fact that the KDP does not have good relations with either the PKK or the PYD.

The PYD rules Syria's Kurdish regions and has not permitted the Kurdistan National Council - the KNC, also known by the Kurdish acronym ENKS, a group made up of Syrian Kurdish parties backed by the KDP - to operate freely in northern Syria.

KNC politicians have even been arrested and threatened when they go to Kurdish areas in Syria.


Several efforts in recent years to reach a compromise in Syria's Kurdish-held areas, brokered in conferences in Erbil and Duhok, have failed. Iraqi Kurdistan has also closed the border to its Syrian Kurdish neighbour several times in recent years.

Turkey last year provided medical treatment to KRG Peshmerga troops wounded in battle against the Islamic State group, training some Peshmerga at their base in Bashiqa near Mosul.

PKK or YPG fighters, on the other hand, are regarded by Turkey as equivalent terrorist threats - if not worse - than IS.

Turkey's mortal enemy, the PKK, operates outside of KRG control within Iraqi Kurdistan. The fact they have remained a force in the Sinjar region following the removal of IS from there irks Erbil. It has joined Turkey in calling for them to withdraw. Rojava Peshmerga - Syrian Kurdish fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan, trained and backed by the KRG but forbidden to return home given the political deadlock between the KRG and PYD - even clashed with PKK-trained Sinjar Protection Units (YBS) fighters in the region in early March, underscoring the ongoing tensions.

When threatened by a common outside power [Kurds] have a tendency to unify and cast aside their internecine disputes

Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has sought to reassure Turkey, in light of its recent pronouncements and posturing, that it "does not have a better friend than the Kurds and the Kurdistan Region in the area".

He isn't exaggerating, Turkey has strained ties with several of its neighbours, with the sole exception of Iraqi Kurdistan. This could change if it aggressively tries to subdue the KRG, either through an economic embargo or military force.

For Ankara to take such a stance, conflating Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan, could result in very unwelcome developments.

The PYD, despite its continued differences with with the KRG, has offered to support the KRG if Turkey were to attack or blockade the region.

Furthermore, increased Turkish pressure on the KRG could result in both sides becoming closer.

"If they [Turkey and Iran] shut the roads, [the KRG] will have to open a route," and restore relations and maybe even trade with Syria Kurdistan, Ilham Ahmed, the co-president of the Democratic Council of Syria, told Reuters this week. "That would be good of course."

Kurds are certainly no strangers to fratricide. Iraq's Kurds fought a wasteful civil war in the mid-1990s after realising an unprecedented level of autonomy following the 1991 Gulf War. However, when threatened by a common outside power they have a tendency to unify and cast aside their internecine disputes.

Turkey's present conflation of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds is fundamentally flawed, and if they translate this conflation into actual policy and treat the KRG as they do the PYD, these two rivals could form some kind of ad-hoc relationship, which would prove detrimental to Turkey.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon