Iraq Vows to Prevent PKK Attacks on Turkey – The Implications for Syria Cannot be Ignored

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has held a phone conversation with his Turkish counterpart Binali Yıldırım after an Iraqi security official met with Turkey’s National Intelligence Chief in Ankara. Al-Abadi has assured Turkey that the Iraqi armed forces have been instructed to prevent any PKK attacks on Turkey after both countries have acknowledged the presence of PKK terrorists in the northern Iraqi city of Sinjar.

Additionally, local authorities in Mosul have ordered the PKK to vacate their position in Sinjar which they first came to occupy in 2014 when much of northern Iraq was controlled by the Daesh terrorist organisation. Since the military defeat of Daesh in Iraq, Baghdad has re-asserted its control over Mosul and surrounding areas.

Turkey has vowed to extend its anti-PKK operations from Syria into Iraq as part of a wider effort to restrict the terror group’s regional presence. However, while some reported Iraq’s dissatisfaction with Turkey’s statements regarding PKK activity in Iraq, recent bilateral talks between Iraqi and Turkish officials have quashed persistent rumours that Iraq is not cooperating with Turkey against an internationally recognised terrorist group.

A helpful precedent for Syria

While Ankara and Damascus do not have diplomatic ties, Iraq has developed an increasingly positive relationship with Turkey over the last year.  In the autumn of 2017, Turkey and Iran helped to enforce a no-fly zone over northern Iraq as Baghdad sent in the armed forces to quash a secessionist Kurdish insurgency led by local Peshmerga militants. While the Peshmerga and PKK are not allies, since the quashing of the Kurdish insurgency in Iraq, PKK forces have moved into Iraq in order to set up anti-Turkish operations with the implied consent of at least some of the autonomous Kurdish authorities based in Erbil.

The example of Turkish cooperation with Iraq, could potentially serve as a model for a settlement to the conflict in Syria where Ankara-Damascus relations are concerned. The liberation of over 90% of Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian Arab Army means that realistically, the larger war against Takfiri terrorism is now limited to Idlib in addition to scattered pockets of Takfiri groups near the occupied Golan Heights, as well as the strategically unimportant pocket of US allied fighters based in Al-Tanf.

Russia is keen to see Syria and Turkey reach a compromise solution to their disputes arising from Turkey’s actions in northern Syria. At the same time, Syria and Turkey have a de-facto common rival in Syria as both Turkish forces and US forces are at loggerheads over the issue of Kurdish militants. The US continues to occupy vast regions of north eastern Syria while arming YPG terrorists who seek to create their own statelet on legal Syrian territory, while Turkey has threatened to pursue the YPG further east, including in areas where the US has set up illegal bases.

Thus, while Syria remains opposed to both the US and Turkish presence on its soil, in reality it is the US that poses the most direct long term threat to Syria’s territorial unity, given that Washington officials have publicly stated that US troops will not withdraw from Syria in the foreseeable future. By contrast, Turkey has worked cooperatively with Syria’s Russian and Iranian partners as part of the Astana format for a peaceful settlement to the Syrian conflict, while multiple Turkish officials, including the President have publicly stated that Turkey has no intention to remain in Syria for the foreseeable future.

Based on the Iraqi precedent, Syria could voice its willingness to make guarantees to Turkey regarding cross-border YPG/PKK terrorism in exchange for Turkey handing control of parts of northern Syria back to the legitimate Syrian authorities. Not only would Russia be happy to facilitate such an agreement, but Russia has indeed been adamant that Syria and Turkey reconcile their differences as part of Moscow’s much vaunted desire to establish a peaceful political settlement to the conflict.

If such a settlement could be reached, it would satisfy the primary disputes between Ankara and Damascus, while further isolating the US in its unilateral position of occupation vis-a-vis every other party to the Syrian conflict (with the exception of “Israel” whose occupation of Syria dates back to 1967).

Iraq’s relations with Turkey have gone from cold to cooperative and while Syria’s relationship with Turkey is far more fraught than Iraq’s has been in recent years, the Ankara-Baghdad agreement over Sinjar nevertheless has wide-reaching implications for Syria, assuming that both Ankara and Damascus are able to work closely with Russia in forging a a diplomatic agreement that could solve problems from the perspective of both the Syrian and Turkish governments.

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