Recently there has been a lot of controversy about the presence of Turkish troops on Iraqi soil. The Iraqi government has told Turkey they must withdraw their troops while the Turkish say they are just there to help train a Sunni Muslim volunteer force near Mosul, the northern city currently controlled by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
But according to some local analysts, the problem isn’t that there are Turkish soldiers on Iraqi soil. After all, they’ve been there for years already. The real danger is that the Turkish military may eventually clash with members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, inside Iraq.
The PKK has been fighting for Kurdish independence and rights in Turkey for years, in an ongoing conflict that has seen tens of thousands of both Turkish and Kurdish people die. In fact, even though the PKK has been actively engaged in the fight against the Islamic State, or IS, group, they are also categorized as a terrorist organization by some Western nations. Recent events in Turkey have seen a fragile ceasefire between the two parties disintegrate and clashes between the PKK, Kurdish civilians and the Turkish military commence.
Nobody seems to know exactly how many Turkish soldiers are in Iraq. At first it was thought there were just dozens engaged in training those Iraqis who wanted to fight the IS group. Now popular opinion suggests that there are at least a hundred troops, if not more, in areas that are both close to Mosul and to areas controlled by the PKK.
For example, the PKK have been integral to efforts to push the IS group out of the Sinjar area, formerly home to Iraq’s Yazidi minority, which was targeted by the extremists.
The PKK are apparently watching the Turkish troop movements in the nearby Bashiqa area closely.
“The Turkish army came to Bashiqa to target us, more than to target the IS group,” Agid Kalari, a senior PKK commander in the Sinjar area, told NIQASH. “We are afraid that fighting between us will soon start – but we are ready for this.”
This wouldn’t be the first time that the Turkish military has crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan to try and fight the PKK. Over the years there have been regular incursions into Iraqi airspace by Turkish planes, to bomb the mountainous border hideouts the PKK are known to use.
In the 1980s, the governments of Iraq (under Saddam Hussein) and Turkey agreed that both of their armies could cross the borders and come 30 kilometres inside each territory in order to prosecute the fight against rebel groups.
And Turkish soldiers have actually been present in Iraqi Kurdistan since the early 1990s. When the two major political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK - started began a civil war, the Turkish remained neutral at first. Eventually though, the Turkish backed the KDP, with whom they continue to have a good relationship, while the PUK sought a military alliance with the PKK. These alliances and loyalties also play a part in where Turkish troops are in Iraq today and how they got there.
“Turkey wants to eliminate the PKK from all Kurdish areas,” says Zagros Hiwa, a member of the PKK’s foreign relations committee. He believes Turkey has sent troops to train the anti-IS fighting force as part of its efforts to revitalize an “Ottoman empire” in the Middle East. In doing this training, they are courting favour with Iraq’s Sunni Muslims.
“The end game for the Turkish forces stationed near Mosul will be to fight the PKK in Sinjar and Kirkuk,” Hiwa argues. “But if that happens, the PKK will fight the Turkish everywhere.”
In mid-December, the Turkish Ambassador to Iraq, Farouk Qimagja, met with senior Iraqi politicians on the Iraqi Parliament's National Security and Defence Committee to discuss the situation with Turkish troops in northern Iraq.
Iraqi MP, Imad Yohana Yako, a politician from the Iraqi Christian community, attended the meeting. “We told the Ambassador that we were worried about potential clashes between the PKK and the Turkish army inside Iraq,” Yako told NIQASH. “However the Turkish Ambassador downplayed those concerns.”
As for the authorities in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, they seem to continuing with a neutral position on the issue – in fact, all signs indicate that the Iraqi Kurdish government will remain neutral even if fighting takes place inside the region, analysts suggest.
“The PKK and Turkey should not be resolving their problems on Iraqi Kurdish ground,” Safeen Dizayee, the spokesperson for the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, told NIQASH. “They need to enter into dialogue. This is not the right place for the Turkish Kurdish struggle – that needs to happen in Turkey and the PKK should be realistic and logical in its dealings with authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Dizayee says that the Turkish army have three military bases in the Bamerni area in the Dohuk province, an area controlled by the KDP. In 2015 the Turkish army built another three training centres – two inside the Soran and Sulaymaniyah areas and one in Bashiqa, close to Mosul.
“The conflict between the two parties [the PKK and the Turkish] should not be resolved on Iraqi soil,” Naseer Nouri, the spokesperson for Iraq’s Ministry of defence, said. “Iraq is not their boxing ring. We will not become party to this conflict and Turkey should be aware that it has entered Iraq without legal justification.”
While the governments of Iraqi Kurdistan, and federal Iraq, have declared their neutrality in the argument this could always change. For example, the KDP’s strong relationship with Turkey may see the Iraqi Kurdish government change its point of view in favour of their neighbours. And then there are also the Shiite Muslim volunteer militias to consider – these groups are staunchly opposed to any international intervention in Iraq, including Turkish, and may support the PKK.
“It is way too early to make any kind of declaration,” Karim al-Nour, a senior member of one of Iraq’s Shiite militias, the Badr organization, told NIQASH. “However we do consider any foreign army that enters Iraq as an army of occupation.”
Local analyst, Nimah al-Abadi, of the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, believes that everyone significant in Iraqi politics will do their best to remain neutral. The KDP doesn’t want to open a front against the PKK on its own land right now – things are tense enough in Iraqi Kurdistan, given the serious political conflict going on there right now about the Iraqi Kurdish presidency, he argues.
“And the Iraqi government doesn’t want to get directly involved either,” al-Abadi continues. “This would only widen the scope of the conflict. The strongest possibility is that all parties will resort to a third party, an international party, to mediate.”
For the time being though, it seems that the potential conflict between the PKK and Turkey must simply join the growing list of international dramas being played out on Iraqi land.