When Kurds fight each other, Erdogan rubs his hands

In Northern Iraq, troops of the Kurdish autonomous government are in conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The underlying reasons for the escalation lie in the fear of Turkish attacks, as PKK militias continue to spread. Our correspondent reports from a region that will be Ankara's new battlefield.

This article was originally published in German on 1 January 2021 by Die Welt.

By Alfred Hackensberger Correspondent for Die Welt

Sitting on the sofa in her living room, Payman Talib still looks a bit pale and lost. The 31-year-old woman only came home from hospital a few days ago. Over the last six months she had to undergo repeated surgical operations. Her hands and arms are covered with large, reddish burn scars. There is a metal walking aid next to the sofa. The young woman needs it because she misses the left leg below the knee. The injuries are the result of a Turkish drone attack on her grocery store in Kuna Masi.

The village of Kuna Masi is a popular destination for trips in the mountains of the Kurdish Autonomous Region, northern Iraq, not far from the city of Sulaymaniyah. “I’ll never forget this moment,” says Talib. “My husband was fetching eggs for a customer when the missile exploded.”

Miraculously, only minor shrapnel struck her husband and two children. For the customer waiting for the eggs however, buying eggs ended with his death. A large piece of metal cut him in two. His three companions, who were waiting outside in a Toyota pickup, were seriously injured.

Payman Talib with her daughter Hamisha and her husband Kaiwan Kawa. Image: Sebastian Backhaus

It was these four men that the Turkish drone was targeting because they belonged to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and it has been persecuting the Kurdish group for years. The PKK and its offshoots are considered a threat to Turkey’s national security. How real this threat actually is, remains debatable. In any case, Turkey is using the PKK as a pretext for its policy of regional hegemony.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cited the “fight against terror” as the reason for two recent invasions and the occupation of large swathes of land in northern Syria. A similar scenario now threatens northern Iraq,  which the PKK uses as a home base, planning center, and training ground for its 5.000 militia fighters. For fear of a Turkish invasion, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is also increasingly opposing the militia.

For years, the Turkish army has been sending special commandos and fighter planes into Iraqi territory and airspace to destroy PKK positions. But in June of this year, Ankara launched two large-scale ground- and air operations against the PKK, both on a scale never seen before.

Turkish soldiers crossed the 367-kilometer border in at least six different places and took control of extensive areas of northern Iraq – the estimated total area is around 200 square kilometers. Turkish media are also reporting about 37 military posts that have been set up in the autonomous Kurdish region.

Source: Infographic Die Welt

Turkey has established itself in northern Iraq and its drones continue to bomb the PKK. Only last Friday were there new air strikes in various areas along the border. Turkey is now even carrying out attacks in the Iraqi hinterland that was previously excluded from its war on terror.

The attack on Kuna Masi is a drastic example of this. The idyllic place in the mountains is some 200 kilometers away from the border with Turkey. “It’s a terrible crime that they did to us,” says Talib, who lost her leg. “Nobody expected an attack here, it came out of the blue”. Her husband adds: “We only found out afterwards that the man was with the PKK. He wasn’t wearing a uniform.”

Baghdad expresses understanding for Erdogan

The government in Ankara is continuing its aggressive style in neo-Ottoman foreign policy in Iraq, as it did in Syria, Libya, the eastern Mediterranean and in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Northern Iraq might be Ankara’s new battlefield.

“As long as terrorism is not crushed, there will be no peace in our region,” Erdogan said recently during a visit to Ankara by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustapha al-Kadhimi. The Iraqi Prime Minister expressed understanding for his host. “We cannot tolerate any organization which endangers Turkey’s national security from our territory,” Kadhimi replied and de facto blessed the Turkish operations in northern Iraq.

The Prime Minister does not seem to mind that Turkey could maybe also annex parts of his country, as has already happened in Syria. In the event of such an annexation, he will hope that Turkey will annex only territory belonging to the autonomous Kurdish region, with which Baghdad is mostly at odds.

Is the Kurdish government again getting sucked under the wheels, like it did after the 2017 independence referendum, when it suffered heavy territorial losses? In their capital, Erbil, people do not believe in the worst-case scenario, i.e., it is officially not believed that the vital Turkish trading partner could occupy parts of the Kurdish region.

Instead, the focus is on the PKK. “It provides Turkey with an excuse to intervene militarily in Kurdistan,” says General Sirwan Barzani in “Tiger Camp”, his military base in Makhmour, near the capital Erbil. While we are sitting in a large conference room with tea and biscuits, Barzani demands that “the PKK has to come to its senses and rethink. We live in modern times. You can no longer come up with the outdated idea of an armed fight for everything.”

WELT reporter Alfred Hackensberger (left) with Major General Sirwan Barzani, nephew of Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani in “Tiger Camp”. Image: Sebastian Backhaus

The general laughs as if that were a given. “I also don’t understand what the PKK wants here in Kurdistan,” he continues. “You are fighting for the rights of the Kurds in Turkey, then please do it there.” In other words, the PKK should withdraw from the autonomous Kurdish region and fight its fight in Turkey.

One thing is certain: when the Kurds fight each other, Erdogan is rubbing his hands. Barzani assures that there are channels through which negotiations, mediated by councils of elders, are being carried out with the PKK in order to find a solution to the tricky situation. So far, these negotiations have not been very successful because the situation between the two sides is more tense than seldom before.

In the past weeks and months there have been repeated clashes between PKK fighters and Peshmerga soldiers resulting in deaths and wounded. Most recently, a young Peshmerga officer died in a gun battle in Amedi, about 20 kilometers from the Turkish border. This happened only a week ago.

The PKK caused particular anger in October with an attack on a Turkish oil pipeline as oil exports of the Kurdish region also run through those pipes. According to two regional parliamentarians in Erbil, the temporary halt to oil exports resulted in damages of 100 million dollars.

One thing Safeen Dizayee wants to make very clear: “We definitely don’t want a war.” He is the head of the Department of Foreign Relations in the Kurdish region. “We only recently left a war behind us, the one against the Islamic State. It caused so many victims.”

It is, however, unacceptable that the PKK is acting like an alternative state authority. In the villages it controls, the militia manages an administrative system based on local councils and thus undermines the government structures in the Kurdish region. “That is totally unacceptable,” says Dizayee.

Like General Barzani, Safeen Dizayee hopes that the PKK will come to its senses. “You have to understand that you are only endangering the residents of the affected areas.” Hundreds of villages along the border already had to be evacuated because the Turkish Air Force continuously kept bombing them. The target was PKK positions, but there is evidence that villagers were also killed and wounded.

A Man in the Qandil Mountains – the camouflaged umbrella is supposed to make you undetectable for Turkish drones. Image: Sebastian Backhaus

On a trip to the border region, one gets an impression of the vast areas under the control of the PKK. A recently built Peshmerga base on a hill is the last military post before coming to the Nahla Valley, which is traditionally predominantly inhabited by Christians.

Sacks of cement and Ytong-stones are still lying around. From above you get a breathtaking view of the valley in the late afternoon sun through the holes between the sandbags. PKK land extends to the horizon.

On top of the hill stands Brigadier Chiya. He points to a round building at dusk. “The last checkpoint is down there in the village of Bamishwish.” Until 2014 there was no PKK here, the officer says. “When we Peshmerga vacated our positions here to fight Islamic State, the PKK took advantage of the power vacuum and descended from the mountains to the valleys.”

Now numerous heavy machine guns of the Peshmerga base cover the entire surrounding area. “In this way we ensure that no PKK fighters roam the area and cause Turkish bombings,” explains the commander. “The farmers can again work in their fields without fear.”

On our way back from the border region, we see more of these newly built military bases on strategically important hills. They are intended to prevent the PKK from spreading further inland. At the same time, they want to encourage the residents to return to their abandoned home villages.

“I’ve lived through several bombings,” reports Dawood Georg, a farmer from the village of Keschkara in the Nahla Valley. “One hit just 400 meters from my house.” The 55-year-old says that because of the PKK he is hardly allowed to cut wood for the cold winter months. Access to some fields up in the mountains is also blocked. “They turned everything into a military zone.”

And what about the Kurdistan Workers’ Party? Its headquarters is in the Iraqi Qandil Mountains near the border with Iran. Turkey is more than 200 kilometers away. It is an inaccessible, wild terrain. In its valleys and forests wolves, bears and wild boars roam. Most of the houses are low-rise buildings with large gardens and colonnades overgrown with vines.

Thousands of fighters have been trained in Qandil over the decades. Turkey has also been bombing the region for many years. Most of the residents have therefore moved away. There are pictures of Abdullah Öcalan hanging everywhere. In 1978, Öcalan was a founding member and one of the leaders of the PKK. He has been in Turkish custody for 20 years. His followers worship the 71-year-old like a god.

It has been particularly dangerous in Qandil since the Turkish operations began in June. Drones continually control the air and repeatedly bomb targets. Public life has come to a standstill. There are hardly any vehicles on the roads.

“Qandil is a symbol of resistance and freedom,” believes Sheikh Omer, the former mayor, who sits in front of the stove in the community center. “Qandil has the same status for Kurds as the Kaaba in Mecca for Muslims.”

The likable, older man with a tummy and a turban appears convinced. He does not doubt for a moment that the PKK will win if Turkey actually tries to destroy the “resistance organization” in northern Iraq. “The Turkish drones cannot do anything against the self-confidence of the people,” says Sheikh Omer. “Öcalan’s warriors can handle any war, however modern it may be.”

Sheikh Omer. Image: Sebastian Backhaus

None of the publicly known leaders of the PKK can be found in Qandil. They are all in hiding in safe places. Instead, we meet the 23-year-old Baz standing on the side of the road with a Kalashnikov. “Falcon”, as his name is translated from Kurdish, is German and comes from the Munich area, as he vaguely alludes.

He has been with the PKK for four years and seems to have found happiness. “I like it here,” says Baz with a smile. He grew up in Antifa circles. He doesn’t miss Germany and his family, only German food. “I’m at home here,” he says. Understandably, he doesn’t want to show his face and wears a mask. After all, like in Turkey, the PKK also has the status of terrorist organization in Germany.

Zagros Hiwa, the spokesman for the PKK, is staying in an almost empty villa in the town of Chwarqurna, more than two hours driving from Qandil. After handing in my cell phone and taking a long detour, the 44-year-old opens the door himself. He says that for security reasons he sleeps in a different accommodation every day. About the PKK’s strategy in the face of the Turkish offensive, he only says: “We have no choice but to stay.”

A withdrawal is therefore out of the question. This will not please the regional government in Erbil. Hiwa knows, of course, that it depends largely on his organization, how the conflict will develop. The more aggressive the PKK is towards Turkey; the more likely escalation with Erbil will be. Hiwa doesn’t want to go into that. But you can tell from his face that he likes the idea of his organization tipping the scales.

The PKK man then talks about Erdogan as the “new Hitler”, about the resistance that cannot be tamed, and how much the PKK works for equality, democracy, and the protection of minorities. It is the usual dose of PKK propaganda.

Hiwa really comes to life when he talks about the attack on the oil pipeline in Turkey. The face of the well-trained man lights up with glee at the successful attack and the anger it caused in Erbil. “We can’t help it that Turkey cannot properly guard its installations,” he says smugly.

Hiwa is not worried about Turkey and its modern drone program. “We are prepared,” he claims. “Let them come.” Is this propaganda or reality? For its part, Turkey has left no room for doubt about the outcome of the conflict.

Hiwa doesn’t want to hear about it. In the end, what must come will come. He praises the great leader Öcalan for having been arrested on the basis of an “international conspiracy.” Of course, the PKK man claims, it was a conspiracy between the Israeli Mossad, the American CIA, and the British MI6.

You can follow Alfred Hackensberger via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.