Turkish airstrikes against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in northern Iraq last month attracted the attention of regional and international players and angered Iraq’s prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is seeking enough regional and international support to force Turkey to withdraw its troops and cease the bombardment. Although Turkey has occasionally bombed the PKK in the Qandil Mountains, near the Iraq-Iran border, for many years, the latest incursion that started in June, dubbed Operation Claw Tiger, has been unrelenting. Iraqi government protests have not stopped the Turkish incursion. On the other hand, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, seems to be ignoring the incursions, despite occasional statements of protest. 

Iran, on 8 August, committed to joining the Turkish bombardment. Attempting to seize the initiative, especially with Iran joining in, on 25 August the USA offered to mediate between Baghdad, Ankara and the KRG. The US offer followed Kadhimi’s complaint to US president Donald Trump about the ongoing airstrikes and his appeal for American assistance. The appeal to Trump followed a Turkish drone strike that killed two high-ranking Iraqi border officials, the first casualties of Iraqi officials since the start of the Turkish campaign in June. Despite Baghdad’s condemnation of the killings, which led to the cancellation of a planned visit of the Turkish foreign minister to Baghdad, Turkey vowed not to back down.

On the same day as the US offer, at a summit between Egypt, Jordan and Iraq about the formation of an economic, diplomatic and security bloc, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stressed the need to deal with foreign interventions destabilising countries in the region, hinting at Turkish activities in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Not to be left out, French president Emmanuel Macron visited Iraq on 2 September, and met Kadhimi and KRG leader Nechirvan Barzani to discuss Iraq’s sovereignty. Unimpressed by Macron’s visit, Turkey hosted Barzani in Ankara two days later. On 8 September, ignoring criticisms, Turkey and Iran vowed to continue the airstrikes against the PKK and its Iranian affiliate, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), upsetting Baghdad further. 

The incursion is not, however, a matter of Turkey against the Kurds, as it is sometimes portrayed. Turkey has strong and enduring relations with the KRG based largely on trade relations and security cooperation. Despite occasional public condemnation, Erbil seems to be broadly supportive of the Turkish incursion and has cooperated with Turkish intelligence, even providing information on PKK positions. 

The PKK began an insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984, attempting to create an independent Kurdish state. Since then, the Turkish military has killed hundreds of PKK members and imprisoned thousands more, including the group’s founder, Abdullah Ocalan, captured in 1999 in Nairobi while en route to South Africa. A ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK, agreed in 2013 as part of a move towards a negotiated settlement, broke down in 2015, and Turkey, USA and the EU listed the PKK as a terrorist organisation. The group operates mainly from the Kurdish regions in northern Iraq and southern Turkey. Its Iranian affiliate, the PJAK, was formed in 2004 and operates between Iraq and Iran, launching attacks against Iran.

Mass demonstrations broke out in northern Iraq against the KRG’s response to the airstrikes, including in Sinjar where Turkish troops are present. In Baghdad, activists have accused Turkey of murdering civilians. The anti-Turkish demonstrations are likely to continue as the Turkish incursion persists, especially in the Sinjar region where many displaced Yazidis want to return to the homes that they had evacuated or were evicted from during the reign of terror of the Islamic State group in August 2014.

Turkish activities against the PKK in northern Iraq have also highlighted the rivalry between different Iraqi Kurdish groups, exposing historical tensions between them, which have differing views on Turkey and its role in northeastern Syria, where it has been battling Kurdish groups. The KRG’s ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has close relations with Turkey, and, consequently, the KRG and Turkey have strong trade links that date back to late 2000s, as well as security cooperation and intelligence sharing. These relations were temporarily disrupted when the KRG held a referendum for independence in 2017. The referendum proved to be a miscalculation by the KRG as it was condemned by regional and global powers, including its allies Turkey and the USA, as well as Iran. Then-president of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, stepped down after the referendum, paving the way for his son to succeed him and repair damaged foreign relations.

The KRG was formed as an autonomous entity in 1992 after the UN imposed a no-fly zone in the Kurdish region following Iraq’s defeat by the USA in the first Gulf War. However, rivalry between Kurdish groups prevented a stable government being formed, and it was only in 1998 that the KDP and its main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), signed a US-brokered ceasefire agreement. In 2005, the Iraqi constitution granted the region autonomous status. Unlike the PUK, the KDP shares Turkey’s hostility towards the PKK, leading the PUK to accuse its rival of collaborating with Turkey and being responsible for the increased Turkish bombing of the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq’s eastern Kurdish region. Apart from the PUK, other Iraqi Kurdish groups that are friendly towards the PKK include the Change Movement (Gorran) and the Freedom Movement of Kurdistan Society. Turkey has been agitating with the KRG for these groups to be banned.

These differences among Kurdish groups were again highlighted when, on 21 July, Turkey revealed that it had detained Dalia Muslim, the niece of Saleh Muslim, a prominent leader of the Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Ankara claimed she had defected from from the Kurdistan Protection Units (YPG), the PYD’s armed wing; she had been a fighter in the YPG’s Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). The PYD denied that she had defected, and accused the KRG of having handed her over to Turkish intelligence agents after she had travelled to Erbil for medical treatment.

Allegations of KRG ‘collaboration’ with Turkey are partly based on the close economic relations between the two. The KRG exports oil via Turkish pipelines that connect Kurdish oilfields to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Controlling huge oil and natural gas reserves, the KRG often clashes with Baghdad over the distribution of the revenues from the sale of these resources. This dispute escalated in 2014 when Baghdad lodged a complaint against the KRG at the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Court of Arbitration (ICA) in Paris. Baghdad is demanding US$25 billion in compensation for allowing the KRG to export oil without the central government’s consent. 

The Baghdad-Ankara tension is likely to persist, especially now that Iran is involved. Turkey has found yet another reason for its antagonism to France, which it regards as interfering in its fight against ‘terrorism’. The KRG finds itself in a dilemma. On the one hand, it too wants to curb PKK activities and force it out of areas the KRG controls; on the other hand, it wants to maintain good relations with Baghdad and does not want to be seen to support foreign intervention in Iraq.

By Ramzy Baroud

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has largely become  an alliance in name alone. Recent events notwithstanding, the conflict brewing over territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean suggests that the military union between mostly western countries is faltering. The current Turkish-Greek tension is only one facet of a much larger conflict involving – aside from these two Mediterranean countries – Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, France, Libya and other Mediterranean and European countries. Notably absent from the list are the United States and Russia; the latter, in particular, stands to gain or lose much economic leverage, depending on the outcome of the conflict.

Conflicts of this nature tend to have historic roots; in this case, it is important to consider that Turkey and Greece fought a brief but consequential war in 1974. Also of relevance to the current conflagration is an agreement signed by the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, and his Greek and Cypriot counterparts, Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Nicos Anastasiades, respectively, on 2 January. It envisages the establishment of the EastMed pipeline that is projected, once finalised, to flood Europe with Israeli natural gas, pumped mostly from the Leviathan Basin. Several European countries are keen on being part of, and profiting from, the project. However, Europe’s gain is not just economic; it is also geostrategic. Cheap Israeli gas will reduce Europe’s reliance on Russia’s natural gas, which arrives in Europe through two pipelines: Nord Stream and Gazprom, the latter extending through Turkey. 

Gazprom alone supplies Europe with an estimated forty per cent of its natural gas needs, thus giving Russia significant economic and political leverage in Europe. Some European countries, especially France, have laboured hard to liberate themselves from what they see as a Russian economic chokehold on their economies because of the gas supply. Indeed, the French and Italian rivalry currently under way in Libya is tantamount to colonial expeditions aimed at balancing out the over-reliance on Russian and Turkish supplies of gas and other sources of energy.

Fully aware of France’s and Italy’s intentions in Libya, the Russians and Turks are wholly involved in Libya’s military showdown between the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and those from the East, loyal to Khalifa Haftar, and organised under the militia called the Libyan National Army. The conflict in Libya has been under way for a decade, but the issue of the EastMed pipeline that will supply Israeli gas has added fuel to the fire: it has infuriated Turkey, which is excluded from the agreement; worried Russia, whose gas arrives in Europe partially via Turkey; and empowered Israel, which will likely use this as an opportunity to cement its economic integration with the European continent. 

Anticipating the Israel-led alliance, Turkey and Libya signed a Maritime Boundary Treaty on 28 November 2019 that gave Ankara access to Libya’s territorial waters. The bold manoeuvre now allows Turkey to claim territorial rights for gas exploration in a massive region that extends from the Turkish southern coast to Libya’s north-east coast. Europe finds this ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ (EEZ) unacceptable because, if it is used effectively by Turkey, it could nullify the importance of the ambitious EastMed project, and fundamentally alter the currently geopolitical situation in the region, which is largely dictated by Europe and guaranteed by NATO.

However, NATO is no longer the formidable and unified power it once was. Since its inception in 1949, NATO rose dramatically; NATO members fought major wars in the name of defending the interests of member states, and to protect ‘the West’ from the ‘Soviet menace’. NATO remained strong and relatively unified even after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union and the abrupt collapse, in 1991, of its Warsaw Pact. NATO managed to sustain a degree of unity, despite its raison d’être – defeating the Soviets – being no longer being a factor. This was mainly because Washington wished to maintain its global military hegemony, especially in the Middle East. 

The Iraq war of 1991 was the first powerful expression of NATO’s new mission, but the Iraq war of 2003 signalled NATO’s undoing. After failing to achieve any of its goals in Iraq, the USA adopted an ‘exit strategy’ that foresaw a gradual American retreat from Iraq while, simultaneously, ‘pivoting to Asia’ in the desperate hope of slowing down China’s military encroachment in the Pacific. The best expression of the American decision to divest militarily from the Middle East was NATO’s war on Libya launched in March 2011. Military strategists had to devise a bewildering new term, ‘leading from behind’, to describe the role that the USA played in the assault on Libya. For the first time since the establishment of NATO, the USA was part of a conflict that was largely controlled by comparatively smaller and weaker NATO members – Italy, France, Britain and others. While the former US president, Barack Obama, insisted on the centrality of NATO in US military strategies, it was evident that the once-powerful alliance had outlived its usefulness for Washington. 

France, in particular, continues to fight for NATO with the same ferocity it fought to keep the European Union intact. It is this French faith in European and western ideals that has compelled Paris to fill the gap left by the gradual American withdrawal. France is currently playing the role of the military hegemon and political leader in many of the Middle East’s ongoing crises (and a few in Africa), including the flaring east Mediterranean conflict. On 3 December 2019, France’s Emmanuel Macron stood up to the US president, Donald Trump, at the NATO summit in London. There, Trump had chastised NATO for its reliance on American defence, and had threatened to pull out of the alliance altogether if NATO members did not compensate Washington for its protection.

It is a strange and unprecedented spectacle when countries such as Israel, Greece, Egypt, Libya, Turkey and others lay claims over the Mediterranean, while NATO scrambles to stave off an outright war among its own members. It is even stranger to see France and Germany taking over the leadership of NATO while the USA remains almost completely absent. It is difficult to imagine the reinvention of NATO into a body that no longer caters to Washington’s interests and diktats. Judging by France’s recent behaviour, the future may hold irreversible paradigm shifts for the alliance. In November 2018, Macron made what seemed a baffling proposal at the time when he called for the establishment of a ‘true, European army’. Considering the rapid regional developments and the incremental collapse of NATO, Macron may one day get his army, after all.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle, and the author of five books. His latest is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons

 

Turkey has launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. Warplanes have bombed militia positions in towns near the border, killing two civilians. To discuss this ongoing conflict, we're joined by Matshidiso Motsoeneng from the Afro-Middle East Centre.

Turkey has launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. Warplanes have bombed militia positions in towns near the border, killing two civilians. To discuss this ongoing conflict, we're joined by Matshidiso Motsoeneng from the Afro-Middle East Centre.

Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria have accused Turkey of violating a ceasefire deal by refusing to allow the evacuation of trapped civilians. Turkey has also accused Kurds of violating the ceasefire themselves. . For more on this, we are now joined via Skype from Johannesburg, by Matshidiso Motsoneng, a researcher at the Afro-middle East Centre......AMEC.

Follow Us On Twitter

Find Us on Facebook

Like us on facebook

Like on Facebook