Iraq’s woes deepen as Kurds, Turkey vie for land
Authorities in Baghdad and Erbil have been attempting to smooth the latest divisions to surface over the slow-moving battle for Mosul in which Kurdish advances on the ground have been portrayed as a land-grab to extend the borders of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
KRG President Masoud Barzani caused consternation in November when he was quoted as saying, during a victory visit to the liberated town of Bashiqa, that the Kurds would hold on to territory they seized in the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS) without a referendum of the local population.
The speech came amid renewed talk of independence for the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, an issue that was shelved when ISIS invaded Iraqi territory in 2014.
The Kurdish leadership backtracked, insisting Barzani had been misinterpreted in Arab reports of his comments and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stepped in to cool the furore.
He said he had an agreement with the KRG that it would withdraw from territory it had taken since the start of the Mosul operation and had no reason to believe the Kurds would not abide by it.
Abadi blamed the confusion on inter-Kurdish rivalry. “It’s not my job to take advantage of these differences,” he told the Associated Press (AP) in Baghdad.
The essence of the Erbil-Baghdad agreement was that peshmerga forces could remain in disputed areas they had seized from ISIS prior to the Mosul campaign, subject to a referendum among the population sometime in the future, but they should eventually relinquish any territory they took during the battle for the city.
The KRG has never staked any claim to the overwhelmingly Arab city of Mosul but it has long complained that the disputed areas are traditionally Kurdish territories that were forcibly settled by Arabs from the Saddam Hussein era.
In newly liberated territory, the peshmerga has been accused of using the excuse of rooting out ISIS and its sympathisers to oust sections of the Arab population that have no connection to the jihadists.
During Abadi’s interview with the AP, he reflected the reality that the central government needs the Kurds in the continuing war against ISIS and with Nuri al- Maliki, his predecessor and rival, snapping at his heels, he cannot afford a deterioration in relations with Erbil.
Maliki has been sniping at Abadi from the political sidelines over the conduct of the Mosul campaign, which began on October 17th, and has accused him of allowing the KRG’s peshmerga to seize disputed territory in Nineveh province.
The Kurds, with many historical precedents on their side, fear that they will be denied the benefits of their struggle once the war is over but, as always, internal divisions present just as big a threat as the machinations of their ever-suspicious Arab neighbours.
In Syria, there were reports in November of demonstrations and clashes involving elements close to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the rival and dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD).
The Barzani-sponsored Kurdish National Council claimed one of its offices had been attacked by PYD security forces and its flags had been set afire.
Aside from these inter-Kurdish tensions, renewed suspicions have been aroused about the dependability of the Kurds amid reports that the PYD is taking advantage of a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive to extend its own territory in the embattled northern city of Aleppo.
As Russian-backed Syrian government forces advanced in the east, Kurdish fighters belonging to the PYD’s People’s Protection Units occupied territory abandoned by rebel forces, leading to inevitable accusations that they were collaborating with the regime.
Another interpretation could be that the Kurds were simply putting their interests first, rather than pursuing the agenda of other Syrian rebel factions that have tried to squeeze them out of the political and military process.
If the Kurds are on the advance in Iraq and Syria, they are on the defensive in Turkey where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has exploited a failed coup in July to crack down on Kurdish groups and other internal enemies.
Among his would-be targets is Salih Muslim, who faces a Turkish arrest warrant for his alleged role in a February bomb attack in Ankara. The warrant is essentially symbolic as Muslim, a Syrian citizen, is unlikely to be going to Turkey any time soon.
Muslim says he and the PYD are on record as having condemned the deadly February bombing and is at a loss to understand why Erdogan has taken the action against him at a time when both his organisation and Turkey are supposed to be confronting ISIS.
That may amount to a deliberate rhetorical naivety on Muslim’s part. He knows from experience that among the Turks, as well as among the majority populations in Syria and Iraq, Kurdish actions will always be treated with suspicion.