Is Turkey working with the KRG to further its expansionist agenda?

Observers believe that economic motives are behind the rapprochement between Ankara and Erbil, especially that Iraqi Kurds’ need for financial aid has increased due to the oil price crisis.

Friday 03/07/2020
A file piucture shows Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu meeting with Iraq’s Kurdistan region’s President Massoud Barzani in Erbil, Iraq, in August 2017. (REUTERS)
A file piucture shows Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu meeting with Iraq’s Kurdistan region’s President Massoud Barzani in Erbil, Iraq, in August 2017. (REUTERS)

BAGHDAD – Iraqi political sources and media reports revealed that Turkey obtained intelligence assistance from parties linked to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq before launching the Claw-Tiger Operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in mountainous areas inside the northern region.

The Arab Weekly was told that Ankara offered the KRG economic aid in exchange for information on PKK sites, with sources explaining that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been trying to exploit Iraq’s financial woes caused by a plunge in oil prices, which have also affected Erbil.

The sources did not provide conclusive evidence of Kurdish authorities’ alleged agreement to cooperate with Erdogan, but indicated that Turkey was rescheduling the KRG’s debts even before the start of the Claw-Tiger Operation.

Turkey launched the operation June 17 in northern Iraq’s Haftanin region to pursue elements of the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by Ankara.

Turkish forces used fighter jets, helicopters and tanks and carried out artillery bombardments and airdrops, which targeted many areas inside the Iraqi Kurdish region.

Observers said they believe there could have been an understanding between Ankara and Erbil due to regional authorities’ tepid response to the Turkish operations.

Jabar Yawar, the general secretary of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs in Erbil tried to throw the ball into Baghdad’s court by questioning the Iraqi government’s lack of prior knowledge about the Turkish military operation.

Yawar raised questions about claims that Turkish warplanes infiltrated Iraqi airspace for 120km in the Sulaymaniyah province without the approval of the Iraqi Aviation Authority, telling Kurdish Rudaw TV: “For this reason, I question the federal government’s information on Turkish and Iranian air strikes and artillery attacks.”

“According to the constitution and law, the responsibility to protect the borders and airspace of all of Iraq, of which the Kurdistan region is part, falls on the Iraqi federal government. However, accusations of shortcomings are often thrown unjustly at the Kurdistan Regional Government or the Peshmerga forces,” Yawar said.

The secretary-general of the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs emphasised that bombing on the border has gone on since 2007. “Iraqi borders and airspace have been continuously violated for 13 years. 135 times by Turkey and twice by Iran,” the secretary-general said.

He considered that “if the federal government wants to end these tragedies by issuing a statement, this will not happen. The Iraqi government must deal more seriously with both Turkey and Iran and engage in a dialogue with them to solve this problem.”

According to Iraqi media reports, movements by forces loyal to an unnamed Kurdish party near the rugged Qandil Mountains, before the start of the Claw-Tiger Operation, may have helped the Turks find out about PKK sites.

Any movement by forces loyal to a Kurdish party in northern Iraq triggers a response from other militant forces, leading to a series of reactions that may extend to even PKK elements despite their Turkish identity, as well as the Iranian Kurdish Pajak Party.

Parties from Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Iran share positions within the rugged mountain ranges in the border triangle between the three countries.

Although the Kurdish parties in Iraq have obtained an almost exclusive right to administer the Kurdish regions since 2003, they retain many of their mountainous sites, which explains their geographical proximity and military contact with the Kurdish party fighters from Turkey and Iran.

Over the past few years, relations between Erdogan and Masoud Barzani, the leader of the oldest and strongest Kurdish parties in Iraq, have quickly grown.

Rather than siding with the PKK in its struggle for self-determination against Turkey based on his nationalist and partisan literature, Barzani has often stayed close to Erdogan.

Observers believe that economic motives are behind the rapprochement between Ankara and Erbil, especially that Iraqi Kurds’ need for financial aid has increased due to the oil price crisis.

In its final days, the former Iraqi government headed by Adel Abdul-Mahdi adopted a strict financial approach with the Kurds, halting payments intended to cover the salaries of employees in the Kurdistan region until complicated disputes over the management of the region’s oil resources and its border ports with Turkey and Iran were settled.

Observers say that the recent financial crisis, coinciding with the coronavirus pandemic, has been especially severe for the Kurdish region, perhaps explaining the agreements between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey that could help them obtain urgent aid.

Iraqis fear that Turkish military intervention in their country will give them room to do more than simply chase PKK elements. They suspect Ankara’s real intentions are to further its expansionist projects, as it has done in large parts of northern and eastern Syria under similar pretexts.

Features of a Turkish security belt have started to form in the depth of Iraqi lands, and there is widespread belief that Turkey will not withdraw from areas affected by the Claw-Tiger Operation.

Ankara has previously refused to leave military bases it established inside Iraqi territory, the most important of which is the Bashiqa base near Mosul.