Nussaibah Younis, European Council on Foreign Relations
There is growing fear in Iraq of a potential Turkish military incursion to drive the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) out of Sinjar, a contested area in the country’s north. Such a move would prove highly counterproductive. It would risk weakening Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is already struggling to implement urgent political and economic reforms. It would also enable the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) and other armed groups to strengthen their political and military posture, while severely damaging the bilateral relationship between Turkey and Iraq. And such an operation would be unlikely to achieve lasting gains against the PKK, given the considerable resistance Turkish forces would face from Iranian-backed armed groups operating in the area. Accordingly, European states should warn the Turkish government about the dangers of an incursion into Sinjar, while pressing Baghdad to intensify its efforts to re-establish control of the area.
The PKK, an EU-designated terrorist organisation that has battled Turkey in pursuit of Kurdish rights since 1984, set up a base in Sinjar in 2015 – a year after it helped local Yazidis escape the advance of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in the area. The PKK has sought to embed itself within the Yazidi community. But its presence in Sinjar has been sharply criticised by Turkey – which views the group as a serious threat to its national security – and has posed challenges to the Iraqi federal government and to the local population.
Sinjar is one of several areas that both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) claim jurisdiction over. Their dispute over control of Sinjar intensified following the 2014 ISIS incursion into Iraq, after which both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the PKK strengthened their influence over politics and security in the area. However, the KDP was forced to withdraw from the area in October 2017, in the aftermath of a federal military response to the Kurdish independence referendum. Since then, a panoply of PMU-affiliated groups with links to the PKK and Iran have controlled security in the area.
The Sinjar Agreement, which was signed by the Iraqi federal government and the KRG on 10 October 2020, sought to remove the PKK from the area and to restore the control of Iraqi federal forces, including the commission that oversees the PMUs. The agreement was a political victory for Kadhimi because it secured formal KRG consent for a reassertion of Baghdad’s authority over the area. However, Baghdad has found it difficult to implement its desired changes to the local security infrastructure. This is partly because the PKK has embedded itself within the Sinjar Resistance Units – the Yazidi security force, which has been formally linked to the PMU since 2015 and continues to operate largely beyond the control of the central government.
Ankara has become frustrated by Baghdad’s lack of progress in driving the PKK out of Sinjar, viewing the consolidation of the group’s presence in the area as a direct threat to its security interests at home and in Iraq and Syria. Turkey has been particularly concerned that the PKK presence in Sinjar provides strategic depth to the PKK by connecting the group’s operations in north-eastern Syria with its capabilities in Turkey and in Iraq’s Qandil mountains. On 20 January, during a visit to Iraq, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar sought Baghdad’s assent for Turkish operations to drive the PKK out of Sinjar, saying: “we have repeatedly expressed that our fight [against the PKK] will continue until the last terrorist is eliminated”. Two days after the trip, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Turkey might invade Sinjar “overnight, all of a sudden”, although he also characterised such an intervention as a joint operation with Iraq.
The Iraqi government is extremely unlikely to consent to a joint Iraqi-Turkish military operation against the PKK in Sinjar because this would be widely perceived as an insult to Iraq’s military capacity and a violation of its sovereignty. Moreover, Turkey is not seen as a neutral political actor in Iraq, and relations between the two countries have often been fraught. Turkey’s unilateral military operations against the PPK in Iraqi territory have long caused consternation in Baghdad. And Iraq’s leaders fear Turkey’s expansionism and perceived desire for greater influence in Iraqi politics. It is hard to imagine that, in the run-up to the October 2021 parliamentary election, Kadhimi would be willing to accept the political opprobrium that would follow a joint Turkish-Iraqi military operation in Iraq.
Despite Iraq’s reluctance to consent to joint operations in Sinjar, Turkey may choose to pursue unilateral military operations against the PKK (with the tacit support of the KRG), as it has done for years in the Qandil mountains. On 10 February, Turkish intelligence officers arrested a man in Sinjar who they accused of being a logistics officer for the PKK, highlighting Turkey’s capacity to act in the area. And a botched Turkish raid in Iraq’s Gara region, which ended with the PKK’s execution of 13 Turkish hostages, has stoked emotions in Turkey and increased pressure on Ankara to attack PKK targets. Following the killings, Erdogan declared that “from now on, nowhere is safe for terrorists, neither Qandil nor Sinjar or Syria”.
The prospect of a unilateral Turkish incursion has angered Iranian-backed armed groups in Iraq. In recent days, several PMU units and other militias – including the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and Ashab al-Kahf – have released statements pledging to defend Sinjar against a Turkish “invasion”. Reportedly, 10,000 more militia members, including fighters from Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hizbullah, have deployed to Sinjar in recent weeks. Ashab al-Kahf recently claimed to have carried out rocket attacks against Turkish military forces in northern Iraq, while Harakat Hizbullah al-Nujaba recently threatened to take action if the Iraqi government did not. Iran is encouraging these armed groups to deploy in defence of Sinjar. It is keen for them to maintain their dominance of Sinjar because of the strategic importance of the area as a point of access to Syria.
A Turkish anti-PKK operation in Sinjar is unlikely to achieve its aims of dislodging the group from the area. Although Turkey’s use of drone warfare has severely weakened the PKK in the Qandil mountains, it has not decisively driven the group out of the territory – despite years of investment. It will be even harder to achieve a sustained victory against the PKK in Sinjar, because a Turkish assault on the area would face strong resistance from Iranian-backed militant groups.
There is little evidence that, if Turkey tacitly cooperated with the KDP, the group would have the desire or the capacity to confront Iranian-backed militant groups in Sinjar. Even when the KDP played a prominent military and political role in Sinjar between 2015 and 2017, it failed to remove the PKK from the area. Therefore, a new Turkish incursion would not shift the local balance of power enough to enable the KDP to control the territory.
A unilateral Turkish incursion would have severe political consequences, particularly as Iraq is preparing for the parliamentary election. It would undermine the political victory that the Sinjar Agreement afforded to Kadhimi; burnish the image of the PMUs and other militia groups as defenders of Iraq at the central government’s expense; and hamper the return of vulnerable displaced Yazidis to Sinjar. Military action would also seriously damage Turkey’s reputation in Iraq. And it could stymie progress on issues such as intra-Kurdish talks in Syria – thereby strengthening the PKK in the country.
European governments should clearly communicate their opposition to the potential incursion, underscoring the negative consequences of such an act. They are well placed to support Kadhimi as he seeks to implement the Sinjar Agreement and re-establish Baghdad’s control over Sinjar, which remains the best pathway towards diluting the PKK’s influence in the area.
This article was first published by the European Council on Foreign Relations