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The Kurds: A Divided Future?
The Kurds: A Divided Future?
Turkey’s PKK Conflict: A Regional Battleground in Flux
Turkey’s PKK Conflict: A Regional Battleground in Flux

The Kurds: A Divided Future?

Originally published in The New York Review of Books

The Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq are linked by a thin and fragile thread, a two-lane highway that passes camps filled with refugees from the wars ravaging these lands. The road is bisected by the Tigris, the international frontier that separates not only Syria from Iraq but also Kurds from Kurds. This was the border that first took shape one hundred years ago this week with the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France—the first of a series of negotiations aimed at dividing the former Ottoman territories of the Levant between the two European powers. And while ISIS has made its hostility to the Anglo-French map well known, it is arguably the Kurds who have been most affected by the modern state system that has emerged from it.

Just how divided the more than 30 million Kurds continue to be was made clear to me this spring, when I crossed this border from Iraq to Syria. The crossing itself is not difficult: on the Iraqi side, an immigration officer of the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil checks with her supervisors, fills out a form, and gives the green light. The whole procedure takes less than fifteen minutes. A small boat then ferries you across to Syria, where an employee of the newly-minted Autonomous Administration of the Syrian Kurdish region enters your information, and gives you a stamped piece of paper attesting to your right to enter. You are then free to drive westward to Qamishli, the first major Syrian Kurdish town. On neither side of the border can one find evidence that the sovereign governments in Baghdad and Damascus are exercising their authority here.

Easy procedures, yet complex politics. The Kurds may have thrown off central rule in Iraq and Syria but the border is still there: despite the Kurds or, perhaps more accurately, because of them. The Kurds have long talked of reuniting their people in a greater Kurdistan, but today their population is carved up between not only Syria and Iraq, but also Turkey and Iran, which have sizable numbers of their own. These different national populations have discovered over time that what sets them apart may be more significant than what they have in common: differences in dialect, tribal affiliation, leadership, ideology, historical experience. And Kurdish parties on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border are reaffirming these differences every day with remarkable bureaucratic fastidiousness. What’s more, the Kurdish parties seem to have internalized the very nation-states they scorn: in Syria, their leadership and members are almost exclusively Syrian Kurds; in Iraq, Iraqi Kurds; and in Iran, Iranian Kurds. Only the Kurdish movement in Turkey, which has pan-Kurdish ambitions, includes Kurds from neighboring states, though the top leadership is from Turkey (and some only speak Turkish). 

All this is apart from the deep political divisions that exist among the respective national populations. In Iraq, for example, the Kurdish leadership has developed strong relations with Turkey, which has become a principal source of investment and trade; while in Syria, the dominant Kurdish party, the PYD, is a sworn enemy of the Turkish government through its close links with the PKK, the militant Kurdish movement in Turkey that is now at war with the government. And within both Kurdish regions, the dominant parties face strong opposition from a number of other factions. 

Here is the quandary in which the Kurds find themselves when they make their claim for independence: Whose claim exactly? And how to realize it? To what territory, and under whose authority? As these questions remain unanswered, the old borders are proving stubbornly persistent—by the Kurds’ own hands.

In many ways, Syria’s Kurds today appear to be reliving what their Iraqi counterparts experienced at the end of the Gulf War in 1991: the same economic desolation; the same combination of military control and security provided by rebel Kurdish parties that are prized for their ability to maintain law and order but enjoy only lukewarm local support; the same deep relief that a hated regime no longer has much say in their affairs; in both cases, a measure of unexpected support from the US; the same upswell of hope now that they are finally achieving some autonomy; and the same nagging fear that an oppressive central government—whether the current one in Damascus or a future incarnation—will return to impose its will.

But looking across the Tigris, Syria’s Kurds regard their Iraqi compatriots’ twenty-five-year-old experiment in self-government as only a partial success. The Iraqi Kurds’ opportunity arose from serendipity: Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and subsequent defeat there left a political vacuum, but the regime rebounded, brutally suppressing their rebellion. Then, the United States and its Gulf War allies bailed them out, establishing a safe haven. Freed of the regime, the Kurds ruled their quasi-independent enclave for twelve years. After the 2003 invasion, Washington compensated them for their loyal support by securing them a place in Baghdad and helping them consolidate their autonomy. Oil and gas exploration and trade with Turkey and Iran gave the Kurdish region’s economy an enormous lift. Looking at the troubles to their south, Kurdish leaders called themselves “the other Iraq.”

But amid this remarkable progress, there have been continuous setbacks. Between 1994 and 1998, the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), fought a civil war in which Barzani opened the gates of Erbil, the region’s capital, to Saddam’s forces in order to defeat Talabani. The conflict was brought to an end by US mediation in 1998, and the two parties agreed to form a unity government in 2005. This brought stability and prosperity, but also allowed the two ruling families to split up the oil bonanza between them. Economic growth came with rampant corruption, which, when oil prices plummeted a year ago, has landed the two parties in a profound crisis of legitimacy. Instead of progress, Kurds have suddenly faced drastic reductions in public-sector salaries, while their protests have been suppressed or preempted through intimidation by the KRG’s party-led security police.

Meanwhile, Barzani has clung to power as the region’s president, even though his term in office has expired (twice)—and despite his failure to institute reforms. At the same time, the prospect of true independence for Iraqi Kurdistan looks agonizingly remote. This may explain Barzani’s recent renewed call for an independence referendum: more a gambit to shore up his flagging popularity than a concrete step toward fulfillment of the Kurdish dream.

For Syria’s Kurds, the lessons of Iraqi Kurdistan are in any case far from the immediate concerns of war. Unlike its counterpart in Iraq, Syria’s Kurdish population is separated into three cantons in two non-contiguous areas in the country’s north, and continues to face a constant threat from ISIS forces nearby. Also unlike the Iraqi Kurds, they are aided by their alliance with Turkey’s militant PKK, but this has brought challenges of its own. The civil war in Syria has revitalized the PKK, allowing it to effectively seize control of Syrian Kurdish areas through its Syrian affiliate, the PYD, expanding the territory under its command. But the collapse of peace talks between Ankara and the PKK last summer has meanwhile precipitated a new violent conflict in Turkey, causing the Turkish government in turn to put more pressure on Syrian Kurdish areas. (Since the peace talks broke down, Turkey has accused the PYD of sending arms across the border to support the PKK’s insurgency.) Today, the Turkish-PKK war is causing large-scale displacement in southeastern Turkey and giving no sign of letting up. It seemed paradoxical, standing safely in Qamishli in a Syria at war, to listen to the sounds of gunfire just across the border in Turkey.

Complicating matters further, while the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish leaderships have diametrically opposed relations with Turkey, both are now allied with the US in a joint struggle against the Islamic State—a struggle in which both Kurdish regions have proven notably effective. This has presented the Syrian Kurdish PYD with a tricky strategic choice: Should it seek to replicate the Iraqi Kurdish model of using American power as a vector for Kurdish ambitions? If it does so, it knows that Washington seems likely to limit those ambitions, providing some degree of Kurdish autonomy within a Syrian state that Washington hopes to rebuild through a peace process sponsored by the US and Russia. Or should Syria’s Kurds exploit the country’s disorder to expand the territory under their control and simultaneously escalate the war in Turkey in overall pursuit of the ultimate Kurdish goal: to gather up the four severed Kurdish parts and reconstitute them into a single “Greater Kurdistan”?

Though the motivations are very different, the long-term geographic aspirations of the Kurds are oddly similar to those of the jihadists they are fighting: both seem equally intent on erasing the old borders of the post-Ottoman order. When I drew this somewhat audacious parallel in conversation with a PYD official in northern Syria during a visit in March, there was a brief, uncomfortable silence. Then he flashed a bright smile and said: “Daesh threw the first bomb. We will reap the result.”

Syria’s Kurdish leaders are frank about their willingness to use conflict and chaos to their own advantage. The PYD’s fighting force, the YPG, having gained a sense of its value, and therefore leverage, as an indispensable ally in the fight against the Islamic State, doesn’t shy away from playing the big powers in the region—the US, Russia, Turkey, the regime of Bashar al-Assad—against each other, regardless of the cost. If Washington continues to treat the YPG as little more than a private security company, a hired hand to help it dislodge ISIS from the banks of the Euphrates, and refuses to help the YPG in its territorial ambition to unify the three Kurdish cantons (which are interspersed with Arab, Turkoman, and Christian populations), then the YPG believes it can use the prospect of a defacto alliance with Russia to get more support from the US.

Kurdish leaders say that Russian officials have told them that if the YPG tries to extend the area of northern Syria under its control all the way to the shores of the Mediterranean (where, incidentally, few if any Kurds can be found), Russia will not prevent it. This may help explain the PYD’s announcement of a federal region (under its control, and with boundaries not yet established) on the eve of the Kurdish New Year in March, a statement that lit up social media and electrified opinion throughout the dismembered Kurdish realm. Another reason for the timing of the announcement may have been the PYD’s wish to draw attention to its cause after it was excluded from the Geneva talks about Syria. Of course the announcement does not create a unified region—to unify the Kurdish areas would require a major military effort against both ISIS and Turkey, and US-backed rebels north of Aleppo. But the YPG is a disciplined and accomplished military force and, unimpeded by a major power, could make significant headway in realizing this goal.

What makes such consolidation of territory particularly dangerous is the possibility that it might draw in the Turkish military. Turkey has already warned that any move to connect the Kurdish canton of Afrin north of Aleppo with other Kurdish areas further east along Turkey’s border would be unacceptable. This is not only because it cannot countenance a large area of Syria’s border with Turkey controlled by Kurds allied with the PKK. It is also because such a move would sever the only remaining supply line to rebel groups in Aleppo that are backed by Turkey. A Turkish military counter-move against the YPG, if not done by proxy, might in turn trigger Russian airstrikes, and from that point on, given Turkey’s likely invocation of its NATO membership, further international intervention could derail efforts to wind down the Syrian war.

It need not come to this. If it does, it will be because the Obama administration, the one power that has leverage with both Turkey and the YPG, is so internally confused that it cannot accomplish either one of its strategic goals: a political transition to a post-Assad era in Syria and the defeat of the Islamic State. It is pursuit of these two aims that has seen some factions in the Obama administration pressing for greater support for Turkey-backed Syrian rebels in Aleppo and along a corridor to the Turkish border; and other factions that are championing a strengthening of the YPG as the US’s most effective auxiliary in the fight against the Islamic State, which it sees as the top US priority. The two approaches cannot be successfully pursued simultaneously.

The sensible way forward would be for the Obama administration to condition its support for the YPG on the latter’s willingness to rein in its territorial ambitions; the quid pro quo could be a promise of US support for Kurdish rights in Syria during a political transition and beyond. At the same time, the administration would need to nudge Erdoğan to return to peace talks with the PKK in exchange for US support of Turkish interests in northern Syria, including prevention of a unified PYD/YPG-run Kurdish region and an end to the YPG’s provision of weapons and other assistance to the PKK in southeastern Turkey.

Such a deal, a tall order by any reckoning, is further complicated by two issues. One is Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism, including, in recent months, the intimidation, censorship, and detention of journalists and other critics, and the use of the fight against the PKK to try to push through constitutional amendments in Turkey to create a presidential system. The Turkish head of state may prove difficult to dissuade from the effort to erode his country’s democratic institutions, unless either military failure in the southeast or a popular uprising against his rule provides the necessary counter-pressure. The other issue is the Turkish perception that the PKK’s resurgence is part of a larger regional competition involving Iran. According to this view, Iran has stoked Kurdish irredentist nationalism in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria (but not at home) against those Kurds who are supported by Turkey and who are willing to work within the existing state system. The area in which this struggle has unfolded most dramatically is northern Iraq.

 “We are in a chess game in which we are the pieces, not the players,” observed Shaho Saeed, a philosophy teacher at the University of Sulaimani, in northern Iraq. In the past, the Kurds’ four hosts—Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria—used the Kurds’ geographic and ideological divisions to limit their aspirations in their own territory. Now, with Damascus preoccupied with greater threats and the government in Baghdad effectively neutralized, the Kurds have two enemies fewer to cope with, more time, and more terrain in which to lay the foundations of a future unified state. Their two other hosts, Turkey and Iran, remain strong, however, and despite their quarrel over who should rule Syria, both seek to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state.

Turkey’s proven method of influencing Iraq’s Kurds is economic: it uses its weight as an economic powerhouse to offer favorable trade, investment, and business contracts to northern Iraq. In return for their pliancy, Iraqi Kurds gain an export channel for their oil through Turkey, which secures what has become their principal revenue stream. This arrangement, in place since 2008, has worked well for both sides and has survived regional upheavals, at least until now. But neither Turkey nor Iraq’s Kurdish leadership has much to offer Syria’s own Kurds, at least as long the PYD remains in charge and subordinate to the PKK.

Iran’s method is to rule by dividing: to support one Kurd against another, and Baghdad against the Kurds. The main dividing line in northern Iraq lies between pro-Barzani Kurds near the Turkish border, who speak the Kurmanji dialect, and Surani-speaking pro-Talabani Kurds in areas closer to Iran. Notwithstanding the two parties’ strategic partnership and common enmity toward the Islamic State, Iran has handily exploited the historic competition between them, and has tried to bring its own favored Kurds—the PKK in Turkey, the PYD/YPG in Syria, and Talabani’s PUK in Iraq—into a broad alliance against Barzani’s KDP. For its part, the PUK is torn between its ideological predisposition and its economic interests: “Its heart belongs to the PKK but its pocket to the KDP,” as Shaho Saeed put it memorably.

In short, the Kurdish political landscape is no less fractured than the region around it. Iraqi Kurdistan may have ended its economic dependence on Baghdad but any notion it harbors of breaking away from Iraq can never amount to more than quasi-independence—shibeh istiqlaal in Arabic—as an opposition leader put it, as long as the region, floating on a sea of corruption and adrift in economic misery, lacks the economic resources, military power, and international recognition it would need. Were Barzani to press ahead with formal statehood, the Kurds, who would be a late addition to the family of nation-states, would be living in a newly independent failed state on the model of South Sudan. Heavily indebted to the oil companies that came in search of its riches, the new entity would be choked off economically by Turkey and wracked by internal conflicts stoked by Iran.

Having been denied a state for the last one hundred years, and now facing a collapse of the old post-Ottoman states in Baghdad and Damascus, many Kurds may dream of destroying the modern borders of the Middle East to finally create one. Yet they first have to contend with ISIS, which wants not just to erase the borders but to bring down the entire Middle East as we know it. Nor have the Kurds been very effective at changing any of the borders that obstruct them. What comes next may be determined less by Kurdish dreams and schemes than by what remains of Syria once Daesh leaves, and what protections for Kurds might be wrung from that. Paradoxically, to guarantee their autonomy—and their survival—the Kurds may end up needing Sykes-Picot just as much as their old overlords did.

Attack helicopters patrol over the area on the Iraqi border of Derecik district of Turkey's Hakkari on February 14, 2022. Ozkan Bilgin / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Turkey’s PKK Conflict: A Regional Battleground in Flux

Turkey is increasingly relying on airpower in its fight against the PKK. New parties have been drawn into the conflict as it spreads to new theatres in Iraq and Syria, which, for now at least, complicates potential efforts to settle things down.

Early February brought a fresh demonstration of the new air-war tactics that Turkey is increasingly using in its fight with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – its enemy in some four decades of conflict. Turkey, like the U.S. and European Union (EU), designates the PKK a terrorist group. On 2 February, some 60 Turkish fighter jets carried out a coordinated attack on training camps, shelters and ammunition storage facilities used by the PKK and its affiliates in northern Iraq and Syria. Since mid-2019, Turkey has increasingly relied on airpower, including drones, to hit PKK bases in the rugged mountains of northern Iraq, allowing it to kill higher-level PKK cadres. According to data collected by Crisis Group, the Turkey-PKK conflict has claimed more than 5,850 lives since a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire broke down in July 2015, inaugurating one of its deadliest chapters.

The spread of fighting to new battlegrounds has drawn in an increasingly complex web of actors. In northern Iraq, Turkey has partnered with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – the largest and most powerful political party in Iraqi Kurdistan and its Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – to obtain information about PKK movements as well as to secure areas it has cleared of PKK militants. The PKK, meanwhile, is forging deeper alliances with Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups (also known as Hashd al-Shaabi) at odds with Ankara and is exercising increasing decision-making authority within the ranks of its affiliates in Syria, primarily the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey sees as an extension of the PKK. The expansion of the battlefield, use of new tactics and involvement of new actors make it harder to identify avenues for tamping down the conflict. Still, steps to contain escalation between the YPG on one side, and Turkish forces and Turkey-backed rebels in northern Syria on the other could help reduce the risk of more violence. So, too, in Iraq, could progress on the Sinjar agreement, an accord signed between the Iraqi government and the KRG in October 2020 that lays out steps related to governance and security in Iraq’s Sinjar district and may address some of Turkey’s concerns about the presence of the PKK there, though for now resistance from the PKK and groups aligned with it to the deal’s implementation remains a challenge.

Figure 1. Map of Northern Iraq

Sources: Borders and roads, Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX); border crossings from HDX and Crisis Group interviews; Turkish military posts from an official Turkish Directorate of Communications map reproduced by Rudaw Media Network; mountainous regions, USGS GMTED2010.

Figure 2

ACLED tracks a wide variety of political events, including protests, armed clashes, looting and non-violent transfer of territory. For purposes of this analysis, “violent incidents” are defined as those in the following ACLED sub-event types: “air/drone strike”, “armed clash”, “grenade”, “remote explosive/landmine/IED”, “shelling/artillery/missile attack”, “suicide bomb” and “attack”.

Turkey’s New Tactics

Turkey’s conflict with the PKK has progressed through several phases since hostilities resumed in 2015 (see Figure 2). The bloodiest fighting took place between 2015 and 2017 in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish south east, as Turkish forces sought to drive the group out of its strongholds over the course of roughly two years of urban warfare concentrated in a few districts of provinces such as Diyarbakır, Şırnak, Hakkari and Mardin (see Figure 3). By 2017, the fighting had moved to rural areas of the south east. As the Turkish military pushed militants out of Turkey, the battleground shifted to northern Iraq, where it was centred largely in areas governed by the KRG. Since July 2015, roughly one in six deaths in the conflict have occurred in Iraq, the majority of them PKK militants. With the KRG’s acquiescence, Turkey now has 2,000-3,000 troops stationed at around 40 outposts in northern Iraq, some as far as 40km from the border, Turkish security analysts estimate. This deployment comes on top of the estimated 8,000-10,000 Turkish troops garrisoned in three pockets of northern Syria: one in Afrin, a second between Azaz and Jarablus in the north west, and a third between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain in the north east.

The conflict’s operational tempo reached a new peak in 2021, with more violent incidents than in any comparable period since the ceasefire broke down – including airstrikes, firefights, roadside bombings and rocket attacks – according to open-source data gathered by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). ACLED recorded a monthly average of 209 such incidents in Turkey and northern Iraq in 2021, exceeding the pace of violent incidents seen during the urban phase of the conflict between 2015 and 2017. Most of these incidents were Turkish airstrikes, with almost 1,200 in northern Iraq in 2021 alone. The higher incident rate is accompanied by a lower level of fatalities than in the conflict’s early years, when combat was concentrated in densely populated areas. Hostilities claimed an average of 40 people per month in 2021, most of them PKK militants, compared to 150 per month in 2016, according to Crisis Group’s data (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

The deployment of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones since 2017 has proven a game changer for Ankara, providing both armed overwatch for Turkish forces and enabling the targeted killing of higher-ranking PKK figures in hard-to-reach terrain in Turkey’s south east and northern Iraq. The PKK has long found refuge in the steep cliffs and jagged peaks of the Zagros mountain range stretching from the Iraq-Iran border to the Turkey-Iraq frontier. PKK training camps dot the region, including in the Qandil mountains of Iraq, where the group’s headquarters are located. Before it fielded the Bayraktars, Turkey had been using unarmed surveillance drones purchased from the U.S. and Israel in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Besides lacking strike capability, these drones were costly and had a more limited range than the Bayraktars, as well as less powerful cameras and transmission systems. Turkish officials also reportedly feared that because those drones were more easily detectable by countries with radar instruments in range – like Israel, the U.S. and potentially even Iran – their activities could more easily be monitored.

The use of more advanced and versatile drone technology has enabled Turkish forces, including ground units, to penetrate deeper into Iraqi territory and go after higher-ranking militants. Drone technologies offer more protection for forces on the ground and can increase their confidence and morale. Turkish troops have also been cooperating more closely with the KDP to gather better intelligence on militant movements and hideouts, and Turkish media are reporting the participation of Turkish intelligence agencies in anti-PKK operations in the area. Moreover, according to Crisis Group data, Turkey is killing an increasing proportion of militants whom the PKK itself classifies as commanders or regards as playing substantial battlefield roles as a share of total fatalities (see Figure 4). Crisis Groups categorises this group of militants as “seasoned”. In 2021, more than one third of the confirmed 312 PKK fighters killed were such seasoned militants. The ratio of killed PKK militants to killed state security force members has also risen more than fourfold in Turkey’s favour since July 2015.

Figure 4

Crisis Group has recorded 74 non-combatant deaths in violent incidents in northern Iraq since July 2015, based on local reports and open-source information, more than half of them after mid-2019 when Turkey intensified its air campaign. News reports from the ground also suggest that a few thousand villagers in the Amedi district, as well as hundreds more in the Duhok district, lost their homes and moved to villages or cities farther south. Civilians in the area complain of both heavy Turkish bombardment and PKK militants’ pressure on locals to provide shelter from air raids.

Turkish officials publicly deny any civilian casualties from airstrikes. They say the use of drones, by allowing for more precise targeting, has significantly minimised the risk of collateral damage. Amid the dominant nationalist discourse in Turkey, criticism of armed drone use is deemed unpatriotic. The technology’s seeming effectiveness in weakening the PKK in the last few years and its export to other battlefields – such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Libya and Ethiopia – have unleashed what some analysts call “techno-nationalism”, ie, a pride in technology as a source of strength abroad that helps the government rally nationalist supporters at home.

The Turkey-KDP Partnership

In northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party has emerged as Turkey’s main local partner in its fight with the PKK. Turkish relations with the party hit a low point in 2017 when Ankara opposed the KDP’s failed referendum on independence for Iraq’s Kurdistan region. But their joint opposition to the PKK’s presence in the area and growing trade ties have helped patch things up. The KDP has allowed Ankara to set up military bases and expand its anti-PKK intelligence and other operations in the territory the KRG administers. Critically, it also offers Turkey its own battlefield intelligence as the KDP and its armed forces know the terrain and have a good grasp of the PKK’s tactics. At times, KDP-aligned security forces also step in to establish control of areas in northern and north-eastern KRG-controlled Iraq from which Turkish operations have driven PKK militants.

The KDP’s military cooperation with Ankara is underpinned by growing economic interdependence.

The KDP’s military cooperation with Ankara is underpinned by growing economic interdependence. In 2020, despite COVID-19 restrictions, trade between Iraq and Turkey reached nearly $20 billion, double what it was in 2019. Around 70 per cent of that commerce was with the KRG, in whose territory approximately 1,500 Turkish companies operate. Turkish construction firms have invested at large scale in infrastructure and transport projects, including highways and railways. Turkey is also an important transit country for KRG oil and gas. Around 450,000 barrels of oil per day were pumped in 2020 through two pipelines with terminals in Ceyhan, a port in southern Turkey. These economic ties give Turkey more leverage over the KDP.

But the KDP’s alliance with Ankara has also made it a target of PKK attacks. Tensions rose particularly quickly after mid-October 2020, when KRG security services accused the PKK of assassinating the head of its local security forces, Ghazi Salih, in Duhok province near the Turkish border. Since then, the PKK have twice attacked the KRG-Turkey (Kirkuk-Ceyhan) pipeline, briefly interrupting the westward flow of oil, in October 2020 and January 2022. They also claimed responsibility for a roadside bomb killing one KDP peshmerga in November 2020. More recently, in mid-January 2022, as clashes between PKK and KDP-allied groups in Syria became more frequent, KRG authorities decided to close the Samalka/Faysh Khabour border crossing between Syria and Iraq.

The PKK’s Response

Turkey’s evolving tactics have to some degree paralleled the PKK’s efforts to step up its influence in northern Iraq’s Sinjar district and in north-eastern Syria.

The rise and fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) enabled the PKK to expand its reach in northern Iraq and north-eastern Syria in the period that began in 2014, when ISIS established its self-declared caliphate in the region. Before that, the PKK’s presence in northern Iraq had been largely confined to the Qandil mountains and the Makhmour district (the latter home to a Kurdish refugee camp of 10,000) farther south. In the first part of 2014, ISIS took over parts of Iraq to the south west and west of the majority-Kurdish areas, including the city of Mosul. Then, in August 2014, the jihadist group attacked Sinjar, a majority-Yazidi district in the Ninewa province, where KDP peshmerga forces had largely been in charge since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The peshmerga withdrew, but the PKK – with help from local partners – stepped in shortly thereafter. With an assist from U.S. airpower, a combination of pro-PKK groups (the YPG and Yazidi Sinjar Resistance Units, or YBS) and KDP peshmerga forces – helped repulse ISIS in late 2015. After that, PKK elements established a presence in Sinjar’s west, while KDP peshmerga dominated its east.

Until the KDP attempted its independence referendum in September 2017, the district largely remained under the control of KDP peshmerga forces, while the PKK maintained a presence. Following the referendum’s failure, Iraqi federal forces pushed the peshmerga back from “disputed territories” – areas where both the central government and the KRG claim administrative authority – between Baghdad and Erbil, including Sinjar. Since then, the KDP has not been able to return to Sinjar. Instead, the district has become a PKK sanctuary, governed by an administrative set-up led by the YBS, which has links to the PKK as well as Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitaries.

As it is not far from the Syria-Iraq border, the PKK has also been able to use Sinjar as a hub for outreach into Syria. Operating from Sinjar, it forged tighter links with the YPG, its Syrian affiliate, which by 2017 had established its own self-described “autonomous administration” in north-eastern Syria. Washington and other outside powers back this administration in part due to the YPG’s major role in the anti-ISIS fight in Syria. International support not only allowed the PKK’s Syrian affiliate (along with non-Kurdish partners) to exercise governance in the country’s north east but also, in effect, put the YPG in charge of security in the area.

Ankara worries that Sinjar has become a land bridge connecting the PKK in northern Iraq with the YPG and other affiliates in north-eastern Syria.

Ankara worries that Sinjar has become a land bridge connecting the PKK in northern Iraq with the YPG and other affiliates in north-eastern Syria. Top Turkish officials have repeatedly vowed that they will not allow Sinjar to become a “second Qandil” –ie, another PKK bastion. To curb its reach in Sinjar, the Turkish military has ordered numerous airstrikes since 2020, targeting both PKK and YBS fighters. The PKK has taken advantage of the natural protection offered by the mountains, building tunnels and secure locations, and thus reducing the impact of Turkish strikes.

The Sinjar and Syria Fronts

The combination of Turkey’s stepped-up operations in northern Iraq and the PKK’s entrenchment in Sinjar has driven an escalation of tensions on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.

In February 2021, Turkey threatened to launch a broader military operation in Sinjar when, in reprisal for a Turkish push into northern Iraq, the PKK executed thirteen Turkish citizens (including soldiers and police officers) whom it had kidnapped in Turkey in 2015 and 2016 and had been holding hostage in a cave. The incident stoked nationalist sentiment in Turkey, putting significant pressure on Ankara to react. On 15 February, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “From now on, nowhere is safe for terrorists, neither Qandil nor Sinjar nor Syria”. In another speech a month later, he said: “We may come there overnight, all of a sudden”. The PKK’s allies in Iraq were concerned. Expecting a Turkish offensive, the Iran-backed paramilitary groups deployed additional fighters to Sinjar, a move that Turkish pro-government media outlets saw as a clear sign that they were shielding the PKK.

Turkish officials say the possibility of a broadened military campaign will stay on the table until the KRG and the Iraqi federal government make progress on an October 2020 deal, backed by the U.S. and UN, that calls for the removal of actors from outside the district – including the PKK, its Yazidi affiliate the YBS and Iraqi paramilitaries – from Sinjar. The agreement envisions the establishment of a governance and security mechanism in which Baghdad, Erbil and displaced Yazidis would share responsibilities. The PKK and the YBS, along with the paramilitaries, reject the proposed deal, which if anything has pushed them closer together.

Meanwhile, as the PKK has lost ground in Turkey and parts of northern Iraq, its cadres have sought greater decision-making authority in areas controlled by the YPG in north-eastern Syria and recruited more fighters from among their Syrian affiliate’s ranks. “Northern Syria has almost become something like a pressure relief valve for the PKK. … The more Turkey squeezes the PKK in Turkey and Iraq, the more its cadres assert themselves in Syria”, a seasoned security analyst said. PKK-trained cadres embedded in the YPG in Syria increasingly appear to be in the driving seat in important decisions such as budget allocations, battlefield appointments and the deployment of military supplies in Syria. Also, in the last two years – in a likely attempt to make up for losses – the PKK enlisted numerous militants born in northern Syria, most of whom it sent to northern Iraq to fend off Turkish incursions. Over 14 per cent of the PKK militants killed in Iraq and Turkey in 2020-2021 were born in northern Syria, the highest share Crisis Group has recorded since July 2015. In fact, in the four years of escalation before 2020 the proportion of Syria-born militants among the total killed was never above 2 per cent.

In the last two years, the YPG has also clashed with Turkish and Turkey-backed forces more frequently in northern Syria. Turkish officials believe the PKK is behind an increase in roadside bombs and rockets fired from YPG-held areas at Turkish troops and Ankara-backed rebels in Turkish-controlled pockets of northern Syria as well as a number of cross-border strikes into Turkey. Members of the YPG’s civilian affiliate, the self-declared “autonomous administration”, publicly distance themselves from these attacks, while Ankara blames them on PKK cadres from Qandil either embedded in or operating independently of the YPG. Yet the Turkish military has also launched drone strikes upon higher-ranking YPG members. Turkey’s above-referenced strike surge in early February 2022 hit YPG positions in northern Syria’s Derik as well as Sinjar and Makhmour in northern Iraq. For now, the U.S. troop presence in Syria’s north east and the leverage Washington has over both sides continue to play a restraining role, but more YPG attacks on Turkish forces could prompt Ankara to broaden its military campaign and upset the fragile status quo in the area.

Looking Ahead

Turkey will almost certainly continue to rely on airpower to battle the PKK in Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

Turkey will almost certainly continue to rely on airpower to battle the PKK in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, with all the repercussions that entails. Its military campaign supported by advanced drone technology has been effective in curbing the PKK’s presence in south-eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. But it has also fuelled intra-Kurdish rivalry between the KDP and PKK in northern Iraq, and exacted a toll on civilians living in the area, compelling some to leave their homes. It has also generated a response from the PKK, which has strengthened its ties with affiliated groups in both Iraq and north-eastern Syria. The result has been new clashes between Turkey’s security forces and groups it partners with on the one hand, and those working with the PKK and its affiliates on the other.

With the growing intensity of Turkey’s campaign against the PKK in northern Iraq and Syria drawing in new actors, a number of factors could stir up the already volatile mix. A U.S. withdrawal from north-eastern Syria for now appears unlikely but would remove an important check on the PKK’s targeting of Turkish forces and Turkey. While Turkey’s air campaign has taken out key PKK figures, it could breed resentment among the population and help the PKK recruit more fighters, particularly from new areas to which fighting has spread. It is also unclear how the approaching 2023 Turkish elections will play into calculations, whether pushing Ankara to step up its air campaign or the PKK to stand down in anticipation that more attacks might help the Turkish leadership rally nationalist supporters at home.

The risk of escalation is higher than the chances that things will settle down, but there are measures that the parties and their partners from outside the region can take to improve the odds. In Iraq, progress on the Sinjar agreement could go some way toward addressing Turkey’s security concerns, though its rivals’ outright rejection of the agreement’s current form for now hinders such efforts (a forthcoming Crisis Group publication will tackle this issue in more depth). In Syria, as argued in a November 2021 Crisis Group report, the U.S. could try to persuade its Syrian Kurdish partners and, by extension, the YPG to rein in attacks on Turkish troops and Ankara-backed rebels. It could also push Turkey to refrain from widening its military operations in the area, which – depending on the extent of the escalation such operations might provoke – could result in the displacement of civilians and complicate efforts to contain ISIS. Such measures will be difficult to advance and would only go some way toward defusing tensions, but they could still be helpful to eventually forestall new bouts of violence.