In the past two weeks, Turkish forces have occupied new areas in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The new Turkish military campaign is part of the Turkish expansion plan led by the country’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The new campaign began with the same old pretext – to “end” the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Qandil Mountains. The Turkish forces deployed many soldiers to three main areas in the districts and suburbs of the Dohuk Governorate, including the village of Kista and the mountainous areas of Meta and Avshin. A few days after the military operations and new occupations of Kurdish villages, the Turkish Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu, announced the establishment of a new military base in the region. Soon after that, the Turkish Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, visited Turkish soldiers at a military base near the newly occupied areas. The new Turkish escalation against the Kurds is related to several internal and external problems inside Turkey, including economic and political failures during Erdogan’s tenure.
The Turkish presence in Iraq
In 1996, Turkish forces, taking advantage of the Kurdish civil war, built their first military base in the Bamerni sub-district bordering Turkey. Since then, Turkish propaganda has claimed their presence in the region is intended to fight the PKK, a pro-Kurdish organization fighting for the rights of the Kurds in Turkey that is also listed as a terror group by the United States and the EU. Since establishing bases in the KRI, Turkish forces have been bombing Kurdish areas continuously, resulting in the death of dozens of civilians and the evacuation of the villages in the area. Today, Turkish presence in the KRI consists of at least 41 military bases and headquarters, 25 kilometers deep inside Kurdish lands in Iraq, extending from the west to a few kilometers from the Iranian border to the east. Turkey has formed a “security zone”, similar to its occupation of Syria. Most of the Turkish military points began to be built in May 2018, when Turkey officially announced its military operations in the KRI. These were followed by multi-phased military invasions under various names that provoked little reaction from Iraq, America, or the international community aside from press releases denouncing the moves.
The Turkish invasion of the KRI includes the presence of thousands of army elements that far exceed Turkey’s presence in both occupied areas of Syria and Libya. For example, in Syria, Turkey carried out three ethnic cleansing campaigns against the Kurds and established military bases in their areas of occupation in Jarablus, al-Bab, Afrin, Tal Abyad, and Ras al-Ain. Turkey has continued to rely on jihadist mercenaries since 2011 to occupy the region, the Turkish military presence in Syria is smaller in number but more specialized than it is in Iraq. Certainly, Turkish support, especially by air, has helped the jihadist mercenaries expand and intimidate the Kurds. But they were not the main force.
Furthermore, in Libya, the Turks have relied on jihadists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda to occupy areas and support a side of the Libyan conflict. Its military presence remains dangerous but is smaller than in Iraq.
The Turkish occupation in Iraq has long-term geopolitical implications. For example, since 1996, they have not left the bases they established in the KRI, while at the same time they have been unable to defeat the PKK, as they claimed was the goal before launching their military incursions. Successive Turkish governments have failed to solve the Kurdish issue, and since 1979 the fight against the PKK has not resulted in any wins; on the contrary, it has brought more issues to the country. Nonetheless, the new occupation is another expansionist milestone laid at the expense of the Kurds.
Terminating the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)
Despite the immense Turkish economic and commercial interests in the region, Kurdistan remains forbidden as an entity or a name for the Turkish state. Historically, Turkey has felt insecure even about the word “Kurdistan,” even as Kurds suffered from ethnic cleansing and massacres undertaken by the Turkish state. Moreover, the international legitimacy granted to the KRG maintains Turkey’s hostile policy towards the Kurds in Iraq. For example, after the non-binding independence referendum by Iraqi Kurds, Erdogan and his government cooperated with Tehran and Baghdad in their war on Kurdistan in the fall of 2017. They believe that weakening any Kurdish entity will facilitate the elimination of other Kurds. For example, If Turkey succeeds in thwarting the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria (AANES), then targeting the Kurdistan region will be much easier and vice versa. The Turkish occupation of KRG territories can be the best-case scenario for Erdogan since it has not drawn enough international attention and is considered a hidden war.
So far, Turkey and Erdogan have had some success in their campaign against Kurds due to several factors. For example, the outstanding problems between Baghdad and Erbil and the lack of trust between the two sides since 2003 have led both to use Turkey as a pressure card. Furthermore, the existing weaknesses of the Iraqi state have led Turkey to become an alternative to Baghdad for the KRG and for Baghdad to weaken the Kurds. Often, Turkey invokes the Iraqi government to expel the PKK from the country. In reality, Iraq has border guards in the region consisting of Kurds but Turkey does not recognize them and sometimes kills them as well. On the other hand, the return of Iraqi federal forces to the region means returning to the time before 2003, when Kurdistan suffered from the brutality of the Iraqi army under the dictator Saddam Hussein. All cases fail to solve the Kurdish issue in Turkey or the Turkish state’s war against the PKK – but provide leverage for Turkey to attack Iraq.
Erdogan’s government failures translate into fighting the Kurds
Since 2015, Turkey’s economic problems have increased due to the authoritarian policies of Erdogan and corruption in the Turkish state institutions led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey’s economy is on the verge of collapse, but Erdogan has not offered any reforms; rather, he has returned to his old method of diverting the country’s attention by resorting to starting new wars on Kurds. For example, after Erdogan’s first defeat in the parliamentary elections in June 2015, he launched a war on the Kurdish region in Turkey and ended the peace project between the government and the PKK. Sadly, his plan succeeded in weakening the voice of the Kurds in the rerun elections and he was able to win public opinion.
By mid-2016, Erdogan returned to wage various methods of persecution against the Kurds and democracy, especially after the failed coup attempt against him by right-wing Turks in July 2016. However, he took revenge on the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) for the coup, which had condemned the coup in the first place. At the same time, he launched an attack on the Syrian Kurds in August of 2016, as Turkey began its military campaign in Syria; its first goal was to eliminate the Kurdish forces supported by the United States who were fighting against ISIS. In the fall of 2016, Erdogan jailed the leaders of HDP and continued his campaign to weaken the pro-Kurdish party. After several months, he succeeded in passing a referendum that turned Turkey’s system into a presidential one and enthroned himself as the absolute ruler.
In every instance, Erdogan used the war on the Kurds to remain in power and mislead Turks about the “danger” of the Kurds. Erdogan was successful in hiding Turkey’s economic and political issues such as high unemployment rates and the Turkish lira’s dramatic fall against the U.S. dollar in both 2018 and 2019, when Turkey launched ethnic cleansing campaigns against Syrian Kurds.
Today, Erdogan’s Turkey suffers from the same domestic issues and international crises. The economy is doing worse than ever, despite Turkey’s success in occupying and helping its allies (e.g., Azerbaijan, by occupying Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh) it has failed to gain the support of the international community. The reason is that Turkey has played a saboteur role rather than providing solutions, especially in Syria and Libya. Turkey has also failed to gain anything in the Eastern Mediterranean, which Erdogan used as a tool for a few months and was able to a lesser degree win public opinion by championing anti-west conspiracy theories.
Currently, Erdogan’s Turkey has given up on competing with the Arab countries, especially after Erdogan’s recent attempts to reconcile with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and sell out the Muslim Brotherhood organization residing in Turkey, if necessary. Erdogan’s wrong foreign policy led Greece, Israel, Italy, Egypt, Cyprus, and Jordan to unite under a joint force against Turkey’s expansionist ambitions. After years of illusion and wars, many Turks realize that their abysmal living conditions have been caused by the president and his regime. Erdogan has once again covered up his external and internal failures by again waging a new war against the Kurds.
The danger of Turkey remaining in Iraq
In 2015, Turkey exported their experiment from Syria to Iraq by establishing Sunni militias in the Nineveh and Kirkuk governorates. In Nineveh, Turkey established and trained a Sunni Arab group while creating a militia group among the Turkmen minority of Kirkuk. Simultaneously, Turkey built a military base in Nineveh’s Talafar district. Since then, Turkey has refused to leave Iraq and begun to freely intervene in its internal affairs. Turkey’s NATO membership has been the sole argument for their invasions, despite Erdogan making Turkey an enemy of NATO by becoming a Russian ally in contradiction to NATO’s core principles.
The new occupation of Iraqi Kurdistan under the pretext of the PKK presence will have long-term security effects for Iraq and the region, especially the Kurds. In the last decade, Erdogan became famous for supporting terrorist groups, including ISIS. In Syria, thousands of jihadists are under the leadership of Turkey have been used as proxies against Armenia and in Libya’s civil war. Turkey can easily use the region, especially the Qandil Mountains, to deploy their jihadist proxies against the Kurds in Iraq. The terrain is a perfect place for any terror group to settle, as it is similar to Taliban hideouts in Afghanistan. Politically, the military occupation of the region will also translate into political leverage for Erdogan and the Turkish state in the KRG and Iraq as a whole, where they have a history of interference that could increase drastically.