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Turkey“s push into Iraq risks deeper conflict

2023-01-31T07:05:14Z

Looming over the deserted village of Sararo in northern Iraq, three Turkish military outposts break the skyline, part of an incursion that forced the residents to flee last year after days of shelling.

The outposts are just some of the dozens of new military bases Turkey has established on Iraqi soil in the past two years as it steps up its decades-long offensive against Kurdish militants sheltered in the remote and rugged region.

“When Turkey first came to the area, they set up small portable tents, but in the spring, they set up outposts with bricks and cement,” Sararo’s mayor Abdulrahman Hussein Rashid said in December during a visit to the village, where shell casings and shrapnel still litter the ground.

“They have drones and cameras operating 24/7. They know everything that’s going on,” he told Reuters, as drones buzzed overhead in the mountainous terrain 5 km from the frontier.

Turkey’s advances across the increasingly depopulated border of Iraqi Kurdistan attract little global attention compared to its incursions into Syria or the battle against Islamic State, but the escalation risks further destabilising a region where foreign powers have intervened with impunity, analysts say.

Turkey could become further embroiled if its new Iraqi bases come under sustained attack, while its growing presence may also embolden Iran to expand military action in Iraq against groups it accuses of fomenting unrest at home, Kurdish officials say.

Former secretary general for Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces, Jabar Manda, said Turkey had 29 outposts in Iraq until 2019 but the number has mushroomed as Ankara tries to stop the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launching attacks on its own territory.

“Year after year the outposts have been increasing after the escalation of battles between Turkish forces and the PKK,” he said, estimating the current number at 87, mostly in a strip of border territory about 150 km long (95 miles) and 30 km deep.

“In those outposts there are tanks and armoured vehicles,” said Manda, who is now a security analyst in Sulaimaniya. “Helicopters supply the outposts daily.”

A Kurdish official, who declined to be named, also said Turkey now had about 80 outposts in Iraq. Another Kurdish official said at least 50 had been built in the last two years and that Turkey’s presence was becoming more permanent.

Asked to comment on its bases in Iraq, Turkey’s defence ministry said its operations there were in line with article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which gives member states the right to self defence in the event of attacks.

“Our fight against terrorism in northern Iraq is carried out in coordination and close cooperation with the Iraqi authorities,” the ministry said in a statement, which did not address questions about the figures cited by Kurdish officials.

Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq, which has long been outside the direct control of the Baghdad government, dates back to the 1990s when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein let Turkish forces advance 5 km into the country to fight the PKK.

Since then, Turkey has built a significant presence, including one base at Bashiqa 80 km inside Iraq, where it says Turkish troops were part of an international mission to train and equip Iraqi forces to fight Islamic State.

Turkey said it worked to avoid civilian casualties through its coordination with Iraqi authorities.

A report published in August by a coalition of NGOs, End Cross-Border Bombing, said at least 98 civilians were killed between 2015 and 2021. The International Crisis Group, which gave a similar civilian death toll, said 1,180 PKK militants were killed between 2015 and 2023.

According to an official with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the conflict has also emptied at least 800 villages since 2015, when a ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK broke down, driving thousands of people from their homes.

Beyond the humanitarian impact, Turkey’s incursion risks widening the conflict by giving carte blanche to regional rival Iran to step up intelligence operations inside Iraq and take its own military action, Kurdish officials say.

Tehran has already fired missiles at bases of Kurdish groups it accuses of involvement in protests against its restrictions on women, displacing hundreds of Iranian Kurds and killing some.

Iran did not respond to requests for comment.

Pro-Iranian militias in Iraq also have a pretext to respond to Turkey’s presence, analysts say, raising the prospect of escalation between Turkish troops and groups besides the PKK.

Hamdi Malik, a specialist on Iraqi Shi’ite militias at the Washington Institute, said pro-Iranian groups such as Liwa Ahrar al-Iraq (Free People of Iraq Brigade) and Ahrar Sinjar (Free People of Sinjar) rebranded themselves last year as the resistance against the Turkish presence.

According to a Washington Institute report, attacks on Turkish military facilities in Iraq increased from an average of 1.5 strikes per month at the start of 2022 to seven in April.

If the groups, which are deeply hostile to Washington, step up operations that would also undermine the influence of the United States and its 2,000 troops in Iraq, said Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington.

“Turkey is underestimating the strength of opposition and the fact that these facilities will become targets in the future and more so as hostilities increase,” said Sajad Jiyad, Baghdad-based analyst for The Century Foundation, a U.S. think-tank.

Northern Iraq’s fragmented politics mean that neither the federal government in Baghdad nor the KRG regional authority are strong enough to challenge Turkey’s presence – or to meet Ankara’s goal of containing the PKK themselves.

The Baghdad government has complained about Ankara’s incursions but has little authority in the mainly Kurdish north, while the region’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) does not have the firepower to challenge the PKK, despite seeing it as a potent and populist rival.

The KDP has historically cooperated with Turkey but has limited influence over a neighbour which wields far greater military and economic clout.

“We ask all foreign military groups – including the PKK – to not drag the Kurdistan Region into any kind of conflicts or tensions,” KRG spokesman Jotiar Adil said.

“The PKK are the main reason that pushed Turkey to enter our territories in the Kurdistan Region. Therefore, we think the PKK should leave,” he said. “We are not a side in this long-standing conflict and we have no plans to be on any side.”

Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani told Reuters the conflict between Turkey and the PKK was a matter of concern, but less pressing than the threat from Islamic State.

Hariam Mahmoud, a leading figure in the Kurdistan Liberation Movement, a civilian opposition group in Iraq influenced by the ideas of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, said no matter how much Turkey squeezes them they will continue to resist.

“In our opinion, this is an occupation and fighting resistance is a legitimate right,” said Mahmoud, who lives in Garmiyan district south of Sulaimaniya.

Civilians, meanwhile, continue to pay the price.

Ramzan Ali, 72, was irrigating his field in Hirure a few km from Sararo in 2021, when he heard a huge blast. The next thing he remembers is being on the ground covered in blood.

He said a Turkish shell had crashed into his property – a regular occurrence when Turkish troops respond to PKK attacks with artillery.

“I watched my life flash before my eyes,” Ali said in the town of Zakho, where he is still suffering from shrapnel wounds. “I am mad at both the PKK and Turkey. They have both wronged us.”

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Omar Abdullah Qasim stands with his grandson in the yard next to his house in Sararo village, where he claims several rockets landed during the Turkish bombardment last year, in Dohuk, Iraq, December 27, 2022. REUTERS/Amina Ismail

Sararo villagers show the damage, they say, was caused by Turkish bombardment on their village, in Dohuk, Iraq, December 27, 2022. REUTERS/Amina Ismail

Bahar Tawfik shows a photo of her deceased husband Ibrahim Mohsen Mohamed, in her home where Mohamed was shot in the chest in August 2021, while irrigating his farm in Dashish village, near the Iraqi-Turkish border, in Dohuk, Iraq, December 27, 2022. REUTERS/Amina Ismail

A Sararo villager shows the damage, he says, was caused by Turkish bombardment on their village, in Dohuk, Iraq, December 27, 2022. REUTERS/Amina Ismail

Ramzan Ali, 72, who said he was injured while irrigating his field in Hirure, a few kilometers away from the Turkish border, in June 2021, when a shell from a Turkish outpost crashed into his property, stands in front of his house in Dohuk, Iraq, December 14, 2022. REUTERS/Amina Ismail

Haider Mohamed Khaled displays shell casings, he said he found in his house in Sararo village, following Turkish bombardments last spring on the area, in Dohuk, Iraq, December 27, 2022. REUTERS/Amina Ismail

A general view shows a mountain in the village in Dohuk, Iraq, December 27, 2022. REUTERS/Amina Ismail