ERBIL, Iraq – Tensions are mounting in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials speak out against the long-housed but increasingly undesirable Kurdish Workers' Party, better known as the PKK. The intensified rhetoric – complemented by a new security agreement between the authorities in Erbil and Baghdad that is firmly against the PKK – appears to be part of a coordinated effort to pressure the group to leave their historic hideouts in the mountains of northern Iraq.
The October 8 assassination of a Kurdish border official, which KRG security forces said was perpetrated by the PKK, and attacks on a key pipeline and Peshmerga soldiers in early November add to the long-simmering tensions between the KRG and the PKK moved to the fore. The latter group announces that they have no intention of leaving Iraq peacefully.
In Western discourse, “the Kurds” are too often referred to as a monolithic ethnic group with common goals that gloss over very tangible historical, geographical and ideological differences between different Kurdish political parties and factions. War-waging activities by Kurdish-led armed groups have undermined stability at both local and regional levels in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, even when the hardest hit are Kurds, these attacks receive little attention.
The Kurdish-led PKK has long been a terrorist organization in the US, the European Union and Turkey. Also named a major foreign drug trafficker by the United States in 2008, it wields some sort of mafia-like power in certain areas. The PKK used the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, which lie directly behind the Turkish border, as a hiding place and training ground during its decades-long struggle against Turkey. In June, Turkey began stepping up attacks on the PKK in Iraq, targeting its military positions in the Qandil and Sinjar Mountains and other locations where the group is present.
The current stalemate between the KRG and the PKK has been a long time coming– a burgeoning impasse that I have seen in my reporting in the Kurdistan region of Iraq over the years. In an interview with Peshmerga Sector Six commander Major General Sirwan Barzani, who was fighting against the Islamic State at the time, he told me that the PKK was a big problem for the Kurds. By that time, however, the Islamic State had recently taken over large parts of Iraqi territory and also turned its attention to the city of Erbil, the capital of the KRG. The KRG forces had enough to do without opening up another conflict with another group, Barzani implied – although the PKK had admittedly helped in the fight against the Islamic State.
Five years later, in early 2019, Barzani redoubled his claims that the PKK was a problem for the KRG, but said it was not yet time to publicly discuss the matter. There were even more pressing concerns: our interview took place near the Qarachogh Mountains, which were exposed to a fire that was supposedly started by the Islamic State.
However, in early September 2020, Barzani was more open as the threat from the Islamic State had decreased significantly. He relentlessly insisted that action must be taken against the PKK in northern Iraq and called on the Iraqi government to take a step. Until all weapons in Iraq are brought under state control as a whole, the people would continue to be attacked by the group – and security concerns would prevent investments in the financially troubled region. According to its own reports, the PKK maintains 37 bases in the Kurdistan region of Iraq – and has declared that it could resort to violence in response to the KRG's intrusion.
General Barzani also deplored the PKK's influence on the disputed area of Sinjar, which lies on the Syrian border, noting that many internally displaced Yazidis have not been able to return due to the confusion and lack of security due to the presence of several armed groups. A KRG security officer I met in Sinjar in 2016 has been attacked by the PKK in recent years, which has caused him to be transferred to another district.
Also in September, the former KRG President Masoud Barzani spoke out against the seizure of land by the PKK and the blackmailing of locals in Iraqi Kurdistan. A statement by his Democratic Party of Kurdistan claimed that "slavery has ended in the world but continues within the PKK".
On October 9, the authorities in Baghdad and Erbil – the capital of the KRG – finally signed an agreement to restore security in Sinjar. A significant part of the agreement requires the PKK to be removed from the area. On November 24, the KRG and the Iraqi federal government dispatched 6,000 security forces to Sinjar to carry out this plan. Unsurprisingly, the deal provoked a violent reaction from the PKK. In the past two months, the PKK has carried out several attacks on KRG forces, facilities and infrastructure. The Iraqi, US and French governments have all condemned the attacks.
Nonetheless, the KRG's public condemnation of the PKK has opened the door for others who have felt themselves victims of the group to speak out. Assyrian communities near Duhok in northern Iraq recently took the opportunity to denounce the PKK. On November 10, the Assyrian Policy Institute tweeted that "PKK fighters are occupying various Assyrian villages," which "has many negative consequences for local Assyrians, including threats to their security and restrictions on their movement."
In the south-eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan, public opinion is beginning to shift towards the PKK too. There has long been a clear political gap between the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP), based in Erbil in the north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which enjoys stronger support in the southeastern part of the region near the Iranian border. In addition to various other attempts to close the gaps – and often open hostilities – between the two, a meeting between the KDP and the PUK on November 9 attempted to overcome recent tensions and create a unified front against the PKK.
General Barzani said that the PUK-affiliated KRG forces in and around Sulaymaniyah are more likely to support, or at least support, the PKK than in areas further north and near the Turkish border where trade with Turkey is essential and many local Kurds can be due the presence of the PKK did not return to their villages.
Many members of the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) fought against Turkey for years as part of the PKK before joining the YPG in northeast Syria. Because of this, many of the foreign so-called volunteers – including Westerners – who fought alongside the YPG against the Islamic State in Syria were supported by PUK-affiliated forces who flew through Sulaymaniyah rather than Erbil, which is closer to the border .
During the years of struggle against the Islamic State, the KRG forces in Erbil had instead trained several thousand Syrian Kurds, which the YPG still prevented from returning home in early November 2020 as talks between various Syrian-Kurdish parties are currently stalling devices. In the meantime, Syrian Kurds have helped the KRG forces in their fight against the Islamic State, including by occupying checkpoints.
These Syrian-Kurdish so-called Rojava Peshmerga are associated with the party of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which speaks out against the YPG-affiliated Party of the Democratic Union (PYD) and accuses it of a tacit agreement with the Syrian regime. The KNC is part of the Istanbul-based Syrian opposition coalition.
In 2014, the KRG reportedly sent more than 20 vehicles across Turkey with the Iraqi Peshmerga to fight the Islamic State in the Battle of Kobane. Due to the tensions between the Syrian Kurdish fighters trained by the KRG and the YPG, there were no Syrian Kurds in the convoy.
The longstanding support or at least acceptance of the PKK in south-eastern Iraqi Kurdistan has also changed. Locals report that both female and male teenagers from their region were “kidnapped” by the PKK, and never heard from again. Many say that PKK recruiters frequently visit cafes and other areas where young people gather to "target and hunt down the weak".
An Asian security guard– –who asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media – angry angrily at the "refusal of the PKK to listen to KRG officials" even though they had long provided refuge for PKK fighters as part of what they see as a bigger fight for a Kurdish state. He also alleged that the PKK kidnapped and recruited young people in trouble, as well as those with financial and family problems, and compared the group to a cult.
Several international bodies have documented that the PKK and its alleged "member organizations" – such as the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria – continue to use child fighters. The dominant faction in the SDF is the YPG.
Mazloum Abdi (also known as Mazloum Kobane), who was in the PKK for decades and is now the SDF's top military commander, told Al-Monitor in an interview on Nov. 7 that he was optimistic about Joe Biden's upcoming presidency. Abdi is a friend of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and joined the PKK in 1990. In 2011, after the beginning of the war in Syria, he was sent by the PKK to organize Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria.
US President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office in January, is widely considered a pro-Kurdish politician. His concern for Kurds was reportedly one of the main reasons he voted for the US invasion of Iraq. During a visit to Northern Iraq in December 2002, he pledged US support for the KRG and emphasized that "the mountains are not your only friends" – a reference to the common Kurdish expression "the mountains are our only friend".
In early 2016, Biden compared the PKK to the Islamic State, saying it was "both a threat" and "a terrorist group, plain and simple". Unlike much of the Western media, the president-elect avoided the mistake of combining an entire ethnic group and its various political organizations into one – as if they all had the same goals.
However, Biden does not view the YPG as part of the PKK, a position he affirmed when he condemned Turkey's Operation Peace Spring in October 2019 after the US withdrew troops from Kurdish regions of northern Syria. Biden wrote that "Donald Trump sold out the Syrian Democratic Forces" and "betrayed an important local ally in the fight against terrorism".
However, the fact that the current leader of the YPG has spent decades with the PKK – and that many others in its ranks were and are linked to the terrorist organization – means that any crackdown on the PKK in Iraq will, without exception, also affect eastern Syria. Although the KRG makes a distinction between the YPG and the SDF, officials admit that they have close ties.
At present, a state arms monopoly, which can enable post-Islamic state recovery and security for the population, is more important to the KRG than simple ethnically based alliances. The PKK appears to have injured too many Iraqi Kurds to be tolerated.