Friday, 31st July 2015

Iraq: Erdogan’s military intervention adds to volatile Kurdish dynamics

The Turkish Air Force (THK)’s bombing of positions held by Islamic State (IS, also known as Daesh) in Iraq, which opened on 25 July, was welcomed by the United States and its allies in the conflict with the expansionist jihadist movement. Even more welcome was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s approval for the US and allies to use Incirlik Air Base to bomb IS positions; this came after many months of lobbying to mobilise a facility that was pivotal in past Middle East wars but excluded by Ankara’s ambiguous attitude over the Syrian conflict.The development was welcomed by one of those most directly involved: the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), whose three province of Iraq were deeply threatened by IS’ astonishing June 2014 campaign that reshaped the region’s political configuration.

But not only did the THK attack IS, it also struck at bases operated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), literally torpedoing what remained of the tattered Turkish peace process.Following the murder of two Turkish police officers, claimed by the PKK, and the 20 July attack (blamed on IS) that killed 32 mostly students at Suruc, on the border with Syria, Erdogan said it was no longer possible to continue a peace process “with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood”.This changes the dynamic both in Turkey (where new elections could be held) and the region.

A leading voice for moderate Kurdish values – and greater tolerance across the Turkish nation – People’s Democratic Party chairman Selahattin Demirtas replied that his crime was winning 13% of the vote that in June thwarted Erdogan’s ambitions to gain greater presidential powers. But western discomfort at the THK’s assault on PKK camps was submerged in governments’ desire for Ankara to come ‘on side’ in the conflict with IS, which critics complain has too often exploited Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq with impunity. With Ankara adopting a more ‘multilateral’ strategy than of late,Nato held an emergency summit in Brussels on 27 July, which stood “in strong solidarity... to address instability on Turkey’s doorstep and on Nato’s border”, as Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg put it.

In theory, there should be little to concern the KRG. President Massoud Barzani has cultivated political and business relations with Turkey, and by all accounts gets on well with Erdogan. A powerful military ally should bolster the offensive against IS, which the KRG has used to expand its remit beyond the three Iraqi provinces where its writ constitutionally runs. Comments by KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani point to the Barzanis seeing themselves as honest brokers betweenTurkey and the PKK.

But the episode points to the limits to the KRG leadership’s control over events. Campaigning against IS has pushed back the Kurds’ de facto boundaries, whose expansion was effectively facilitated by US air power and allies’ material support for the Peshmerga. But there is nothing to suggest that military alliances of convenience could convert into support for greater independence.The US has provided more weapons for the Peshmerga since mid-2014 (a precedent set when the Kurds opposed Saddam Hussein in 1991), but Washington is careful to insist that equipment first passes through the central government in Baghdad.

The other regional power, Iran, is happy to see the KRG form a bulwark IS and emerge as a relatively dynamic regional trading partner. But Tehran has no truck with its own Kurds’ aspirations, and has a genuine enemy in the Free Life Party of Kurdistan, which has links to the PKK and whose military wing, the East Kurdistan Defence Units, has carried out attacks in the Islamic Republic.

Within Syria, rival Kurdish groups make and break alliances. Suggestions that, in one respect at least, they could make common cause with President Bashar Al-Assad – in reconfiguring an ethnically divided Syria – have enlivened speculation. But the hard truth is that in Syria, as in Iraq and Turkey, Kurdish populations and their leaders are likely to remain under pressure from enemies and kept far from statehood by their allies.

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