Washington Kurdish Institute
Since the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923, the Kurds have suffered various forms of persecution including massacres and destruction of Kurdish villages and cities as part of a systematic, ideologically-driven campaign of ethnic cleansing. Mainly the wars on Kurds, not only in Turkey but in Iran, Iraq, and Syria were initiated by occupying powers due to Kurdish demands for expression of their identity and demands for some measure of self-governance, including demands for autonomy or independence from the oppressive regimes that occupied the homeland of the Kurds since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. To this day, the Kurdish people’s legitimate demands for their basic rights have been used to justify invasions, brutal occupation, and massacres. Decades ago, the Kurdish struggle within Turkey’s borders entered a new stage with the founding of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978 and the PKK’s initiation of armed struggle against the Turkish state in 1984, after five decades of terror and oppressive policies against the Kurds by consecutive Turkish governments. The PKK enjoyed significant support from the Kurds of Turkey and beyond, gaining great strength despite the best efforts of NATO’s second largest army. However, the PKK was designated as a terrorist organization under US President Bill Clinton in 1997 after immense pressure from the Turkey, a fellow member of NATO once considered a major strategic ally of the US in the region.
In the past decade, Turkey’s authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has established himself as perhaps the most brutal Turkish leader against the Kurds, and has fought Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. While using loose arguments to invade Syria, Turkey has also invaded parts of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in addition to establishing military bases there elsewhere in Iraq.
Erdogan’s occupation of the Kurdistan Region
In the Kurdistan Region, Turkish airstrikes have killed 85 civilians since 2011, in addition to displacing thousands of people from their homes in the villages near the borders. Similar to other invasions by Erdogan and Turkey, Erdogan uses the pretext of fighting the PKK to target, destabilize, and occupying another Kurdish majority region. For example, Turkey has now about 40 military bases and safe houses inside the Kurdistan region. In addition, Turkey’s plans to set up more bases, calling them “temporary” like those they built in the 1990s or elsewhere like in Cyprus since 1974. Erdogan clearly aims to extend Turkish military presence in Iraq and increase his pressure on Iraq, and especially the Kurds. Additionally, Erdogan often uses water as a weapon conflict in both Iraq and Syria, it appears that his long term plans are to weaken both states and obligate the people to accept his neo-Ottoman expansionism. The Kurdistan region’s ongoing dispute with the federal government of Iraq and its landlocked geography make vulnerable to Turkish military aggression and other forms of pressure.
The historically brutal nature of the Turkish military has certainly been reflected in the attacks against the Kurdish civilians in the Kurdistan region. In 2011, the Turkish warplanes killed 32 civilians on the border of the Kurdistan region. The attack, known as the Roboski massacre which killed children, a tactic under Erdogan’s Turkey is still using. Since then, Turkey has only doubled down on spreading horror as shepherds, celebrators of the holidays, tourists at resorts, and villagers have been killed by their drones. Furthermore, Turkey is also displacing the native Christians of the region, targeting their religious belief, a policy used by Erdogan in Turkey as well. The Erdogan-Turkish aggression against the Kurds and Iraq as a “sovereign” state has also resulted in the killing of two senior officers of the Iraqi border guards last August.
In their war against the Kurds, Erdogan and the Turkish military often attack a United Nations’ recognized refugee camp in Makhmour. Using the usual same pretext of “fighting the PKK” civilians have been tageted and killed on several occasions. The Makhmour camps host thousands of Kurds from Turkey who were disabled by the Turkish government in the 1990s.
The Yazidis, a vulnerable ethnoreligious minority, also have been the target of many Turkish airstrikes. The Yazidis lost thousands of people during the Yazidi Genocide committed against them by ISIS in 2014 while then Erdogan refused to fight or even allow the US to use their own military base against the terror group perpetrating the genocide. The Yazidi’s cultural heartland, the region of Shengal (Sinjar), has been targeted by several Turkish airstrikes, causing further death and instability in a region that has yet to recover from the recent genocide.
The Turkish invasion has caused immense damage to the environment as the forests and wildlife in the region have been destroyed by Turkey and its authoritarian President Erdogan.
Recently Turkey has also convinced Iran to join their fight against the Kurds, which Iran has been doing independently for decades but not in direct cooperation with Turkey. Despite fundamental differences, when it comes to the Kurds, Erdogan is united with the Iran’s Islamic regime.
Turkish bases in Iraq outside the Kurdistan region
In December of 2015, Turkey without any invitation from Iraq or the US-led coalition, the Turkish military deployed troops in the Bashiqa District of Nineveh province (Mosul) and established a military base. Despite being against it, the Iraqi government could not do much since the entire country, including Kurdistan, was in the middle of the fight against ISIS. The US-led coalition also did not welcome the Turkish base and announced that they are not part of the coalition to fight ISIS. What Turkey did, however, and continue to do to this day, is to train Sunni Arab proxies and meddle in Mosul’s internal affairs. They claimed to leave after the liberation of Mosul from ISIS. Erdogan and many Turkish officials still dream of the “return” of Mosul to Turkey since it was occupied during the time of the Ottomans. The Turkish military remains in Bashiqa illegally to this day and the Iraqi government has remained silent.
In Kirkuk, Erdogan’s policies have been a main factor of destabilizing. For example, similar to Bashqia, Turkey has trained about 1,000 people from the region’s Turkmen minority in Kirkuk and armed them outside of the framework of the Iraqi security forces. Furthermore, Turkey since 2003 has supported a political Turkmen entity known as the Iraqi Turkmen Front, using them as a card to destabilize the situation in the disputed territories. In 2004, Turkey sent special forces to assassinate the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk, which were intercepted and detained by the US military.
Iraq can expel Turkey
Undeniably, Erdogan wants to make Iraq yet another component of his expansionism policy which includes Syria, Armenia, Greece, the Eastern Mediterranean, and many more areas such as Somalia and Libya. At the same time, Iraq is facing significant internal challenges like the daily attacks and threats by the Iranian-backed militias on the foreign envoys, especially the US. However, Iraq and its current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi enjoy strong support from the US, EU, and the UN. While these entities are against the PKK’s presence on the borders of Iraq, they are also against the Turkish presence in the country. In addition, Kadhimi has support from the Arab League, which has recently denounced Turkey’s intervention in Iraq several times. Internally, the prime minister also has support from the Kurds, as both Erbil and Baghdad have unprecedented cooperation and coordination military and politically. Despite the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) relations with Turkey and energy trade, the Kurds have voiced concerns about Turkey’s deployment in the region especially after Turkey’s Syria invasion and the destruction of the Kurdish regions in Turkey since 2015.
So far Kadhimi’s cabinet failed to address the Turkish invasion strongly, issuing only a handful of official statements on the topic. Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Fuad Hussien, a Kurd, has threatened to take the Turkish attacks to the UN security council. The Iraqi government should aim to end the Turkish invasion immediately, starting in Kirkuk, Bashiqa and throughout to the Kurdistan region. This could be done through raising the issue in a serious diplomatic package backed fully by the Kadhimi with direct talks to the US, EU, Arab League, and the UN. Otherwise, Turkey will continue to weaken and destabilize Iraq as they have done since 2003.
The US is clearly against Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s affairs and they should take a similar stance with respect to Turkish military aggression. The EU has had enough of Turkey’s wars, including the most recently aggression in Armenia, during which Erdogan misuses NATO membership as cover. The Arab states realize that Erdogan’s attempts to assert himself as a leader of the Muslim world are dangerous and contrary to their interests, and indeed Turkey has lost all of its friends in the Arab world except Qatar. Despite the mess in Iraq, the Turkish military presence within the nation’s borders can easily be ended if Baghdad truly seeks to do so. This would represent a major step in bringing some measure of peace to the country.