Iraq’s Kurdistan slams Turkish airstrikes on PKK

Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani told the Turkish PM Ahmed Davutoglu of his 'displeasure' at the situation

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The leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan on Saturday condemned Turkish airstrikes against positions of PKK Kurdish rebels in its autonomous region in the north of Iraq, the first comment from the autonomous northern Iraqi region’s leadership while Baghdad kept quiet.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that Turkey has unleashed a third wave of airstrikes and ground attacks on targets of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group in Syria and PKK militants in northern Iraq.

“We have given instructions for a third series of strikes in Syria and Iraq. Air and ground operations are under way,” he said. “No one should doubt our determination.”

He added: “We will not allow Turkey to be turned into a lawless country.”

His remarks came after week of violence in Turkey, including a suicide bombing blamed on ISIS and attacks on Turkish police claimed by the PKK - deemed a terrorist organization by Ankara and Washington.

Barazani speaks to Davutoglu

In response, Kurdish regional President Massud Barzani spoke to Davutoglu on the telephone and “expressed his displeasure with the dangerous level the situation has reached,” a statement said.

“He requested that the issue not be escalated to that level because peace is the only way to solve problems and years of negotiations are better than one hour of war,” Barzani said in a statement.

The Kurdish militants did not keep quiet and sounded the alarm on Saturday that the conditions for maintaining a ceasefire with Turkey were no longer in place.

“The conditions for maintaining the ceasefire... have been eliminated,” the People’s Defense Forces (HPG), the military wing of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) said in a statement, denouncing an “aggression of war” by Turkey and vowing “resistance.”

Unusual move

Bombing PKK has puzzled some observers especially as the Kurdish militants have been key in fighting ISIS. Turkey has also long been criticized for not joining the U.S.-led coalition’s airstrikes against ISIS in neighboring Iraq and Syria, making the bombing raids against ISIS as the first such actions against the group by the only NATO Muslim member state.

“The reason is very simple, [Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s government believes PKK is much more of a dangerous opponent for the Turkish government than ISIS. In fact it thought ISIS was sympathetic to it,” George Joffe, a research fellow at the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University, told Al Arabiya News.

Joffe added: “Turkey simply ignored ISIS when it was using Turkey as a place to get support.”

However, Turkey’s more active role comes after a suspected ISIS suicide bomber killed 32 people, some of them Kurds, this week in the border town of Suruc. The deadly attack sparked a wave of violence in the mainly Kurdish southeast, with the PKK killing at least two police officers, calling it retaliation for the suicide bombing.

“We do not know if [the bombing] was ordered by ISIS or a dissident member. We don’t know,” Joffe speculated.

U.S. pressure

Turkey’s involvement in airstrikes against ISIS is also due to U.S. pressure to jump on the bandwagon. On Thursday, Turkey agreed to allow the U.S. military to use an airbase to strike ISIS in Syria following the suicide bombing in Suruc, which is just across the border from Kobane.

Kirkuk-based strategic analyst Abdulrahman al-Sheikh Talib described the simultaneous airstrikes against ISIS and PKK in the same time as loaded with “contradictions.”

“The opposition Kurdish forces have long fought ISIS wholeheartedly and ideologically and with determination, this creates some questions on the ground,” Talib said.

He added: “Secondly, the violations continue for many times on Iraqi land in light of an absent Iraqi legislation that prevents such interference by the Turkish forces.”

The analyst said that during the rule of deposed leader Saddam Hussein, Iraq allowed Turkey to hit Kurdish targets. However, he said there is a current movement in the Iraqi parliament to draft legislation to prevent neighboring Turkey from doing so.

Yet the Iraqi government has so far been silent since the attacks began. Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan, have had a long history of bickering over oil revenues. In mid-July, Iraq’s foreign minister sought “uninterrupted” military support from neighboring Turkey in its fight against ISIS.

“There is a fury in Kurdistan over the airstrikes that hit villages in Iraq and there is also lack of trust over their airstrikes on ISIS [by Turkey] in Syria,” Talib said.

“The PKK militias hit by Turkey are a vital part in the fight against ISIS, which could dampen Iraq’s fight against the jihadists.”

Previous reluctance

Many analysts previously said that Turkey remained reluctant to join the U.S.-led campaign out of fears that the growing power of Kurdish forces will embolden its own Kurdish minority, and that militants could launch revenge attacks inside Turkey.

But when the fear of Kurdish forces strengthening their grip near Turkey’s borders materialized, Erdogan’s project to make peace with its Kurds, who represent nearly 20 percent of Turkey’s population, seemed under threat.

Turkey and its Kurdish minority had until now largely observed a fragile ceasefire since 2013. The strikes against PKK targets are likely to be a major blow to the stalled Kurdish peace process.

“Ankara needs to work on its internal problems and build a real democratic Turkey but the measures it followed do not help Iraq or Syria; it is only playing with fire,” Talib said.

Despite Erdogan’s gamble by starting peace talks in 2012 with the Kurds, they now blame him for backtracking on promises.

He added: “The peace process [between Turks and Kurds] took years. If Turkey cared for stability in the region, it has to guarantee internal stability and not to divert its public opinion that there is an external threat by hitting PKK.”

“Turkey has to tidy up its house and not to export its problems.”

On Friday, Erdogan said he had told U.S. President Barack Obama that the PKK would be a focus for attacks.

ISIS-Kurds confrontation closer to Turkey

Meanwhile, the confrontation between Syrian Kurdish YPG forces and ISIS, has been moved in Turkish territories since the Suruc attack, threatening Turkey.

On Saturday, YPG wrestled control from ISIS portions of Hasakeh, a Syrian city near the Turkish Sanliurfa province.

In Tel Abyad, another border Syrian town near Turkey, ISIS militants on Saturday detonated explosive-laden trucks in two villages.

Raids on ISIS, PKK affiliates

After Turkey detained 590 suspected members of ISIS, PKK and other militant groups, Davutoglu vowed to fight all “terrorist groups” equally.

His statements come after many Kurds and opposition supporters have suspected Erdogan and the ruling AK Party of covertly backing ISIS against Kurdish fighters in Syria, something the government has repeatedly denied.

“Turkey was allowing ISIS to use Turkey as a recreation area. It allowed medical service and crossing the border freely [for ISIS members] and the reason for the suspicion is that the Turkish security indirectly supported them,” Joffe said.

But Turkey vehemently rejected such claims.

Suleiman Karro, a journalist from Kobane, said that Turkey launching airstrikes against the militants is to “remove suspicion that it is supporting ISIS.”

(With AFP and Reuters)