On 26 January 2019, a group of Iraqi Kurds stormed a Turkish military base in the Shiladze district of Eastern Dohuk, Iraq. They destroyed several Turkish armoured vehicles, some equipment and forced Turkish soldiers to withdraw. Their grievance? Turkish airstrikes had claimed the lives of six of their kinsmen over the preceding days. As these airstrikes were only the latest in a growing trend, the group of Iraqi Kurds demanded their cessation, closure of the Turkish military base and departure of fighters of the Turkish Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) from the area that the base is meant to counter. The incident set the scene for further violence as Turkish soldiers allegedly killed a few protestors and wounded about a dozen. When security forces of Iraq’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) arrived on the scene, they evacuated the protesters while Turkish warplanes flew threateningly over the area.
President Erdogan immediately blamed the PKK for the incident and announced military reinforcements to the region. The Turkish defence minister in turn framed the attack as a PKK response to recent Turkish military successes and condemned it for ‘using’ civilians. Across the border, the Iraqi foreign ministry issued a muted rejection of the actions of Turkish forces, emphasized Iraqi sovereignty and indicated it would summon the Turkish ambassador for an explanation. Finally, the website of the department of foreign relations of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) expressed its grief for the loss of life caused by the protests. KRG prime minister Nechervan Barzani stressed that Turkish air strikes only occur where the PKK is present and active. In other words, he views the PKK’s presence in the villages of northern Iraqi Kurdistan as the problem.
We argue in this commentary that both Turkish and Iraqi reactions are relevant mostly for what they omit on four crucial issues.
Starting with the PKK…
To start with, one may wonder why there are Turkish military bases situated in northern Iraq in the first place, with the evident consent of the KDP. In brief, they are the result of Turkey’s longstanding military strategy against PKK positions in northern Iraq that the KDP supports because of the economic advantages of its relationship with Turkey and because it views the PKK as a competitor. After Operation Euphrates Shield (2016) and Operation Olive Branch (2018) in Syria, the Turkish Army commenced a ground offensive in the Hakurk and Zap regions of northern Iraq, culminating in its Kandil operation (also 2018). Since then, northern Iraqi Kurdistan has witnessed growing Turkish military air and ground activity against PKK targets. Similar to its strategy in Syria, the Turkish military has established 15 new temporary military bases along the axis of counter-PKK operations (the blue zones in Figure1 below), in addition to a number of Turkish permanent military bases already present across northern Iraq. The military base in Shiladze is a permanent outpost that already existed to contain PKK activity along the Great Zab river valley that connects southern Turkey with northern Iraq. In short, two unspoken elements of the Shiladze base incident are that Turkey is expanding its military campaign against the PKK in northern Iraq and that this campaign, which features the regular use of airstrikes, is causing appreciable civilian casualties among the area’s Iraqi Kurds. The campaign, incidentally, is enabled by both the KDP and the United States.
Turkish co-optation of the KDP leadership
What then, about the muted nature of the response of the Iraqi KDP’s leadership to Turkish soldiers killing Iraqi citizens on Iraqi territory? The KDP’s low profile simply reflects growing Turkish economic influence in Iraqi Kurdistan. The governor of Erbil, Nawzad Hadi, stated for example in October 2018 that “Turkish companies execute the lion’s share of infrastructure development projects in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk.” Even more significant is the imminent opening of the third international border crossing between Turkey and the KRG – the Zete Border Gate – which aims to improve trade and tourism. Finally, oil is flowing again from Kirkuk to Ceyhan (Turkey) after a yearlong-halt that cost both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan an estimated $8 billion in foregone revenue. The positive attitudes towards Turkey of Iraq’s president, Barham Salih, and the KRG’s prospective president, Nechervan Barzani, are therefore no surprise. But the love is no longer entirely mutual as the Kurdish independence referendum of October 2017 made Ankara more cautious about relying entirely on Iraq’s Kurds as its linchpin with Baghdad. In consequence, Ankara has also proposed opening a second direct border crossing with Iraq, bypassing Iraqi Kurdistan, at the Ovaköy junction where the Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian border meet.
Relations between Baghdad and Erbil
Third, one might have expected the Shiladze base incident to lead to sharp recriminations by Baghdad, accusing Erbil of jeopardizing both Iraqi citizens and the country’s territorial integrity. None of this happened. The answer lies in the recent thawing of relations. Unlike previous governments, Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi is taking serious steps towards defusing tensions between Iraq’s centre and its wayward Kurdish region. For example, Iraq’s 2019 budget allocated Kurdistan its ‘normal’ share of 14%, restoring cuts made under prime minister Al-Abadi. Through the same budget, the Iraqi government recently also undertook to pay Kurdistan’s Peshmerga salaries directly via its ministry of defence. Finally, collaboration between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to combat the Islamic State recently restarted in Kirkuk and the disputed territories – no small feat after the disastrous Kurdish independence referendum of October 2017. The key to Baghdad’s reconciliatory approach is the Barzani family that also happens to rule in the Dohuk and Erbil governorates in northern Iraq where Turkish bases proliferate. In brief, neither Erbil nor Baghdad is willing to jeopardize their blossoming relationship for the sake of Turkish military activity in their mountainous north.
Elite rule all around…
A final unspoken element of the Shiladze base incident is how clearly it shows that rule in Iraq remains an elite business that tends to neglect the interests of ordinary citizens, in this case Iraqi Kurds. Iraqi officials have stressed time and again that Kurdistan is an integral part of Iraq but it has ‘reduced’ Iraq’s Kurdish community to the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) by treating these two parties as privileged interlocutors for all affairs Kurdish. This has enabled KDP and PUK-affiliated KRG officials to run Kurdistan essentially as a family business. The revenue generated from Turkish-Kurdish (oil) trade are critical to the bottom line of this business and the need to protect it likely prompted prime minister Barzani to blame the PKK for the Shiladze base incident. To add insult to injury, KRG security forces also arrested several demonstrators and detained journalists covering the event. When an NRT news reporter queried why his colleagues were arrested for doing their job, prime minister Barzani replied that "democracy and freedom have their limits. To us, the security of citizens is more important than other things talked about." One wonders whose citizens he referred to.
"A final unspoken element of the Shiladze base incident is how clearly it shows that rule in Iraq remains an elite business that tends to neglect the interests of ordinary citizens, in this case Iraqi Kurds"
Our short analysis suggests at least two major risks emanating from the Shiladze base incident. To begin with, the intensification, lack of restraint, and KDP support for Turkey’s fight against the PKK in northern Iraq could lead to an escalation of violence in the area, or even in the south of Turkey, as the PKK strikes back, and local populations no longer accept just being victims of the conflict.
Moreover, although the areas in which the fighting takes place are sparsely populated, growing local discontent may put additional strain on the KDP’s ability to continue running Iraqi Kurdistan as its preserve. The KDP would undoubtedly perceive such a development as a threat liable to violent repression, in the same vein as it treated the new political parties that were created ahead of the recent Kurdish elections.
Either way, more tell-tale stories are likely to emerge from the inscrutable Kurdish mountains of northern Iraq.