On Tuesday morning Turkish air strikes targeted Kurdish forces on Sinjar Mountain in northern Iraq.
Turkish warplanes strike Kurdish militants in Iraq's Sinjar (credit: REUTERS)
According to initial reports, the Turkish Air Force struck at bases used by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and its ally, the Yazidi Shingal Protection Units.
However, the attack also killed five Kurdish Peshmerga – the armed forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government – and injured nine others.
Voices in the KRG, specifically from the leading Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP argue that the PKK’s presence in Sinjar threatens to undermine the regional government and blame the casualties on the PKK.
In a paper published on April 12 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Fabrice Balanche argued that Sinjar could be a strategic necessity for the Kurdish Rojava region of Syria as a corridor for trade to Iraq and Iran. The argument is part of a larger narrative that sees Iranian designs on Sinjar as part of its “Shia crescent” linking Tehran with Syria. In this sense, Turkey’s bombing could be part of a large regional contest for Sinjar.
The reality on the ground is more tragic, with thousands of Yazidi refugees on Sinjar Mountain still taking shelter, since some 5,000 Yazidis were murdered by Islamic State in 2014, and hundreds of thousands wish to return home to Sinjar. But they want infrastructure and security.
The Turkish intervention adds to the tensions and makes return difficult.
Turkey is also sending a deeper message to the US in Syria. While the US may conquer Raqqa with the SDF, the Turkey wants to show that they will act with impunity against the PKK or YPG in Syria or Iraq, overflying US forces to do so if needed.
The Turkish intervention in Sinjar has been six months in the making.
In October 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Sinjar will “not be a new Qandil.”
Qandil is a mountaineous area of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq where the PKK has camps and where Turkey carried out air strikes as part of its war with the PKK. Turkey has maintained small military bases in northern Iraq since the 1990s and uses them to carry out raids against the PKK.
To understand what is happening in northern Iraq we need to keep in mind several things. Turkey rekindled its war with the PKK in 2015, which has led to city-wide curfews in Kurdish towns and an estimated 2,400 deaths, including hundreds members of the Turkish military and more than 1,000 PKK members who are viewed by Turkey as terrorists.
The PKK have been fighting Turkey for decades and have set up bases across the border in northern Iraq.
The leading Kurdish party in the KRG, the KDP, loathes the PKK, which it fought a war in the 1990s.
The KRG’s economy is heavily linked to Turkey and the KDP enjoys relatively warm relations with Turkey.
When KRG President Massoud Barzani visited Turkey in February, the Turks placed the Kurdish flag at the meeting. This was a signal to Baghdad that Turkey supports the Kurdish autonomous region. The Kurdish region is seeking independence via a referendum this year and it needs international support, as does its powerful neighbor to the north. During the war with ISIS, Turkey established a military base alongside Peshmerga forces at Bashiqa, because Ankara wants to protect Sunnis and Turkmen in northern Iraq and it was working with the KRG.
When ISIS invaded northern Iraq, one of its most heinous acts was the attack on Sinjar in August 2014, in which it massacred members of the Yazidi minority and enslaved thousands of Yazidi women. Survivors fled to the mountain. During the fighting many Yazidis were saved when the PKK and members of the YPG intervened from Syria and opened a corridor to Sinjar, preventing ISIS from killing more people.
This created a situation in which the PKK and the YBS Yazidi militia held parts of western Sinjar and some areas along the Syrian border, while the KRG’s Peshmerga counter-attacked from the east.
When ISIS was forced out of most of Sinjar in December 2015, the divisions remained. Each side recruited local Yazidis into military units. By March of 2017, many Yazidis had joined the Peshmerga, but there were also clashes between the Peshmerga and the YBS and PKK.
The Peshmerga in Sinjar are partly made up of Syrian Kurds, which makes for a strange mix, because the PKK in Sinjar often receive their supplies and support often via Syria, where they enjoy warm relations with the YPG. In this conflict, borders between Syria, Iraq and Turkey are sometimes blurred.
The larger context is that the US-led coalition is supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces to take Raqqa from ISIS in Syria, which could be frustrated by greater Turkish intervention in Iraq and Syria.
The SDF are affiliated with the YPG.
Turkey also launched air strikes against YPG bases in Derik in Syria on Tuesday.
From a regional view, these are all the same conflict. Turkey sees itself as fighting the PKK in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. For Turkey, the YPG, SDF and YBS are all part of the larger PKK umbrella.
In a region of incredible instability, with the remnants of ISIS being slowly defeated and numerous players seeking a role in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, the Sinjar air strikes add to a combustible mix.