What's behind the PKK withdrawal from Sinjar?
The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) announced on Friday that it was withdrawing its forces from the disputed Iraqi province of Sinjar, declaring that the persecuted Yazidi minority they were defending against the Islamic State group were now safe.
It came amid Turkish threats to attack the group in the province and an Iraqi army deployment there. While the group's withdrawal is certainly significant, it will still likely retain influence and at least a partial foothold in that strategic province via proxies.
"Turkey seems to have parlayed its incursion into Erbil into getting the PKK to withdraw from Sinjar, a long-time desire of Ankara," Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, told The New Arab. "Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made several statements threatening to intervene there in the past few days. That led both the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad to ask for the PKK to leave."
Turkey has targeted the PKK with airstrikes in recent days in northeast Erbil province, within Iraqi Kurdistan's borders, with one incident killing four Kurdish civilians picnicking during this month's Nowruz holiday. The Turkish army also launched a cross-border ground incursion, 10 kilometres into the autonomous region.
Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to attack Sinjar in recent years, vowing that Ankara sought to stop the PKK from establishing "a second Qandil" there - a reference to the mountain stronghold retained for decades by the group in Iraqi Kurdistan.
|The PKK was willing to withdraw because it knows its allies within the Yazidi community and the militias it has formed there will maintain its influence, and allow it to return
Ankara may not be satisfied by the PKK's announcement that it is withdrawing, since the Sinjar Protection Units (YBS) group will remain in place there. The PKK created and trained the YBS to fight against IS, which had infamously subjected the Yazidi minority to a campaign of genocide.
"I assume the PKK was willing to withdraw because it knows its allies within the Yazidi community and the militias it has formed there will maintain its influence, and allow it to return if it chose to," concluded Wing.
Sinjar was under the control of the KRG until last October, when its Peshmerga forces were withdrawn following the demoralising loss of Kirkuk to Baghdad's troops and allies. Like Kirkuk, Sinjar is a province disputed between Iraq and the Kurdistan region. It is also a strategically important region since it sits between Iraqi Kurdistan and the border with Syria. This is one reason the PKK sought to retain some hold over territory in that area, since its Syrian wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), controls northeast Syria, much to Turkey's ire.
"The ostensible withdrawal of the PKK from Sinjar is really unclear - and presumably willfully so," Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, told The New Arab.
"For instance, some reports suggest that this announcement by the PKK refers to the pull-out of its armed wing, the HPG, from Sinjar, while the YBS remain, which, if true, is a piece of outright casuistry," he added.
"The YBS, like the YPG or PJAK [the Iranian Kurdistan Free Life Party group], is not an 'affiliate' of the PKK; it is a component part. The YBS commander, for example, is a PKK veteran of some two-decades. So any YBS presence that remains in Sinjar is by definition continuing to pursue the PKK's interests."
Orton also contends that the PKK's announcing a withdrawal is a political ploy to create an impression that it has completely vacated the region "to prevent a repeat of Afrin, where Turkey [is driving] them out".
"In a campaign against the PKK in Sinjar, Turkey could draw on [at least tacit support from] the KRG and elements in Baghdad," he added.
Orton identifies Iran as the wildcard of the present situation, saying that the YBS and PKK work "side-by-side with some of Iran's most powerful militias in Sinjar, providing free passage for both the PKK and Iran into Syria - the YBS itself is formally under the banner of the Iranian-dominated Hashd al-Shabi [Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces paramilitaries], an official part of the Iraqi state."
|Tehran has fostered relations between its proxies in Iraq and the PKK for many years and is unlikely to give up that project
Baghdad previously paid the salaries of YBS fighters when they were fighting IS, while at the same time refusing to send any money to pay the salaries of the KRG's Peshmerga forces who were also fighting IS. This was likely, at least partially, Baghdad's way of seeking to undermine the KRG's control over the region at the time.
"Tehran has fostered relations between its proxies in Iraq and the PKK for many years and is unlikely to give up that project," Orton added. Additionally, if the PKK has indeed withdrawn all its forces who came down to Sinjar from their Qandil stronghold in August 2014, "it is conceivable the remaining YBS-branded forces would come further under the sway of Iran".
"But this would be a tactical accommodation since the YBS would not be under anyone's control but the PKK's," Orton concluded.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.