In 2017, I had the good fortune to be invited to celebrate Eid with a friend in Zakho, a city in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. I saw some of the many waterfalls and caverns that draw tourists there to cool off, far from the violence that often mars Iraq outside of Kurdistan. Unfortunately, that sanctuary is now being destroyed by a creeping barrage from the north.
During Turkey’s decades-long struggle with the Kurdish militant group, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), fighting has frequently spilled over into neighboring countries. Perhaps one of those most affected by Turkey’s military operations is the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Despite not being affiliated with the PKK and constitutionally a part of Iraq, the Kurdistan Region has often been caught in the middle of the Turkey-PKK war, of which this attack is the latest bloody manifestation.
What’s the Problem?
The historic power vacuum in this mountainous region, especially pronounced after the Gulf War, enabled the PKK to set up many camps in the KRI from which they launched attacks against Turkey. Turkey used this to justify more than a dozen cross-border operations since the 1980s. According to a recent statement by the Iraqi Defense Ministry, the Turkish military has penetrated 105 kilometers deep into Iraqi territory and has established over forty bases in Iraq, particularly in the Kurdistan Region.
According to the recent reporting by WKI, Turkey’s attacks on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have resulted in the death of 110 civilians and the injury of 186. This figure is supported by separate reporting by the Community Peacemaker Teams. After the liberation of the Islamic State’s territory in 2017, the Kurdistan Region had been hopeful that there would be a return to peace. Unfortunately, civilian loss of life continues to be normalized and accepted as part of living in the region.
Besides crackdowns within Turkey, cross-border operations also garner strong domestic support for Turkish governments. For this reason, Turkey has frequently attacked the Kurdish Region in Syria – sometimes dubbed the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) or simply dubbed ‘Rojava’. Starting in 2016, with Operation Euphrates Shield, Turkey carried out many offensives in Northern Syria. Since then it has captured over a 1000 settlements which include 8 towns. The largest of these is Afrin, from which hundreds of thousands of Kurds have subsequently fled. These operations appeal to nationalist Turks: it is not unusual for the ruling party’s vote share to increase 3 to 4 percent with every military operation. With Turkey’s recent economic woes, the domestic political incentives for external action are greater than ever.
Turkey has few international constraints countervailing these strong domestic incentives. There is practically no other regional actor that wants to check its activities, except maybe Iran. There is an imminent threat of a new Turkish offensive into Syria, as president Erdogan recently asked Russia and Iran’s support for another incursion. Even this check is limited by Iran’s own hostility to its own Kurdish independence movement. Despite a plethora of condemnatory statements, there have been few international sanctions for these.
However, no-fly zones are not declared but rather enforced. In 1991 it was possible for a no-fly zone to be put in place for Kurds in Iraq because of propitious circumstances. The US and the Coalition had just fought and defeated Iraq in the Gulf War. Iraq was clearly an adversary and its air force had been crippled. Neither of these critical conditions are true now for Turkey.
Expecting the U.S. or NATO to impose a no-fly zone anywhere against Turkey is not politically realistic. Turkey is a NATO ally and is one of its strongest members. If the U.S. decided to undertake a task like this, Turkey would regard it as an offensive act, possibly even a declaration of war. Even in its cross-border offensives, Turkey considers its engagements as internal affairs . It’s not far-fetched to expect a strong reaction from Turkey in such a case.
Nor is there a strong appetite in the West for a confrontation with Turkey. The EU relies on Turkey to stem the tide of refugees into Europe. Turkey has enjoyed using this as a bargaining chip for years to press the EU at every chance. The US on the other hand is more concerned about Ukraine. In that conflict, Turkey plays an important role as an intermediary with Russia. Confronting Turkey wouldn’t be a priority at present.
A no-fly zone is also logistically infeasible. To refresh our memories, Turkey threatened to shut down the Incirlik Air Base for a much less critical reason, a declaration by the U.S. recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Incirlik would be vital for enforcing an NFZ in the region. It would also be useless, because expecting US jets to take off from Turkish soil, fly through Turkey’s airspace and engage Turkish airplanes would be senseless. Other bases open to the U.S. don’t have the range to support a no-fly zone without a long and sustained buildup of tankers for in-air refueling. These would have to be based at several bases around the region, requiring other Middle Eastern states to be willing to risk war with Turkey. Such a campaign seems so unlikely as to direct our attention towards other solutions.
What’s the Solution?
The short of it is that there aren’t any viable short term options to solve these issues and prevent Turkey from further offensives. It’s quite dubious if economic sanctions would work at all. Turkey’s largest trading partner, the European Union, is unlikely to risk confrontation because of the refugee issue, addressed above. The Iraqi government doesn’t seem too interested in preventing these aggressions and protecting its borders or citizens. It prefers using the crisis as an opportunity to come down on the KRG and squeeze it for oil. There have been numerous civilian casualties resulting from Turkish strikes in the KRI. However, this recent attack in Zakho was so brazen that even the normally recalcitrant Iraqis have strongly condemned Turkey.
However, these condemnations are unlikely to have much effect on Turkish behavior as they would not be connected to any meaningful threat or sanction.
This years-long crisis demands a years-long solution. The ultimate goal of activists should be the international legitimacy of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The first step towards achieving this international legitimacy is securing domestic legitimacy. While the current government has made reform a top priority, societal dissent against political authorities continues to erode internal legitimacy. The divided loyalties of political elites and ordinary voters between the major parties allows the KRG’s neighbors to run roughshod over the Kurds by playing divide and conquer.
Furthermore, the KRG does not possess a unified military force, robbing it of most of its respect and legitimacy. Because the KRG’s own territory is not guarded by a united force, other regional powers disregard its territorial integrity too. Its territories are a worsening patchwork between Turkish bases and PKK camps. While Turkey regularly violates its authority and causes turmoil, the KRG’s deep reliance on its economic ties with Turkey doesn’t help its case for legitimacy either.
For the sake of stability in the whole region, the KRG needs to be further legitimized and empowered internationally. The KRG and the Kurds aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Some American observers, particularly those who were involved in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, seem to revel in the plight of the Kurds, hoping that the KRG will fold and submit to Baghdad. However, if the KRG stays divided and unstable it will keep acting as a fault line triggering crises in the whole Middle East. Having a more active effort and realistic strategy for solving its issues might help elevate the KRG to a permanent regional actor that is regarded highly in the long run.