A recent agreement between Erbil and Baghdad on the status of Sinjar region has appeared to be a tipping point for recent clashes between the PKK terrorists and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
A recent PKK attack on a pipeline operated by the KRG, has elicited strong condemnation from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the leading political party in northern Iraq.
The PKK, recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU, has reportedly angered the KDP after attacking one of its pipelines. The incident has added to the already existing tensions between the two sides.
Analysts have been pointing at a recent agreement between the central Baghdad government and the regional Erbil government over the political status of Sinjar, a mountainous region in northern Iraq near the Syrian border, which has been occupied by both the PKK and Iran-backed Hashd al Shaabi forces, as the main reason for escalating tensions.
“The Sinjar agreement, which is signed under the auspices of the UN and backed by both Turkey and Western powers, will end the PKK presence in the region if it is implemented according to its own content,” says Bekir Aydogan, the Anadolu Agency correspondent in Erbil.
“Despite the international support to the agreement, the PKK openly opposes it,” Aydogan tells TRT World.
Since 2014, some PKK groups have taken over parts of Sinjar, which is mostly populated by the Yazidis, an Iraqi minority, on the pretext of fighting Daesh. The YPG is the Syrian wing of the PKK, which runs much of northern Syria, thanks to Washington’s support and arming.
The PKK has been doing everything at its disposal to sabotage the agreement from attacking the pipeline, to targeting some prominent peshmerga commanders like Gazi Salih İlhan, who was the head of the Serzer border gate between Turkey and Iraq, according to Aydogan. In mid-October, Ilhan was killed by the PKK in the city of Dohuk, which is close to the Turkish border.
“The latest attack to the pipeline, which the PKK has already taken responsibility for, has evoked a possibility that tensions between the PKK and the KRG could turn into a violent conflict,” says Aydogan.
The PKK, whose headquarters are located in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq, also occupies more than 600 villages in the region much to the dismay of the KRG, according to Aydogan.
The KRG has frequently demanded the PKK to leave northern Iraq, but the terror group has rejected the demands, leaving the region in limbo.
Since the 1980s, Turkey has conducted several cross-border operations, which have been usually backed by Massoud Barzani’s KDP and the late Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), against PKK terror groups across its border in northern Iraq.
Barzani was the former president of the KRG while Talabani was the ex-president of Iraq. Despite Barzani’s resignation from the presidency after a failed Kurdish independence referendum in 2017, his family continues to control main sections of the KRG.
Ankara continues to hit PKK targets in northern Iraq as it has a powerful military presence in northern Syria to check terror groups like the PKK and Daesh in the region.
The latest escalations between the PKK and the KRG could facilitate more Turkish operations in the region, particularly in Sinjar, due to increasing concerns in both Erbil and Ankara against the terror group, says Aydogan.
“If tensions between the KDP and the PKK continue to increase, the KRG will give more support to Turkey’s anti-PKK operations,” Aydogan assesses.
“The PKK could also feel more pressure to leave Sinjar after the agreement backed by the UN and Western powers,” he adds.
Turkey has repeatedly declared that it would not allow Sinjar to be “a second Qandil”, which is the PKK’s headquarters in Iraq, signalling possible joint operations with both Baghdad and Erbil against the terror group.
Hashd al Shaabi-PKK axis
In Sinjar, the Hashd al Shaabi, a powerful Iraqi Shia umbrella group backed by Iran, has also appeared to have a similar agenda to the PKK.
While the Shia group operates under the Baghdad government, there is friction between Hashd al Shaabi and the current Mustafa al Kazimi government, which is supported by Washington.
Both the Hashd al Shaabi and the PKK, which have occupied Sinjar on the pretext of fighting Daesh, collaborate with each other to control the region.
“Salaries of PKK’s local forces in Sinjar have been paid by the Hashd al Shaabi,” says Aydogan, indicating a definite connection between the two groups.
But it could be more than that.
Last month, angry supporters of the Hashd al Shaabi attacked the KDP’s Baghdad political office, burning it and desecrating KRG flags alongside Barzani pictures.
The incident was apparently triggered by a statement from Hosyar Zebari, the former foreign minister of Iraq and the uncle of Barzani. Zebari suggested that the Iraqi government needs to “clean up the Green Zone [in Baghdad] from the presence of Hashd militias”.
Aydogan thinks that there could be a possible link between the Hashd al Shaabi attack, the KDP Baghdad office and the Shia group’s collaboration with the PKK, which is the archenemy of Barzani’s party.
But the Hashd al Shaabi-PKK axis might also lead to more rapprochement between Ankara, Erbil and Baghdad, according to Aydogan.
“PKK attacks in the Kurdish region and tensions with the KDP, which also disturb the Kazimi government on the grounds that the PKK violates the Iraqi sovereignty, could lead the Erbil government to proceed in a way that it could urge the Baghdad government to consider the PKK as terror group,” Aydogan says.