The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has become a new political variable in the northern part of Iraq. It now constitutes a source of concern for the Iraqi Kurdish parties and Turkey. Arbil, Baghdad and Ankara think that the PKK will re-shape the future of their relations in this region. Other geopolitical developments will also determine the course of these effects.
The relations between the PKK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the main parties in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), have witnessed many setbacks.
The PKK accused the KDP of carrying out harmful activities against its members in the (KRI). More than a year ago, the PKK confirmed that it had evidence proving that the intelligence agencies in Arbil and Ankara were observing its movements in Qandel and Sinjar. Arbil, from its side, denied these allegations and affirmed that its citizens were doing their duty to protect Arbil. It also asserted that it would strongly reply if the PKK tried to attack the residents of KRI.
The KDP is often concerned about the roles the PKK is today playing in northern Iraq. Arbil always puts blames on the PKK and charges it of creating chaos in this part of Iraq. It also warrants that the PKK has been trying to turn this area into a battlefield to settle its accounts with Turkey. Therefore, Arbil has frequently expressed its rejection to the PKK's presence there, and asserted that the PKK is now impeding the plans Arbil set to develop more than 800 villages in the zones where the PKK spreads. In return, the PKK accuses Arbil and Ankara of assassinating its leaders.
Different analysts reiterate that the language of treason is now dangerously escalating between these parties. Some cities of the KRI have witnessed a rise in popular attitudes toward the Turkish military bases. To express their anger towards the Turkish aerial bombardment against innocent people, inhabitants once stormed a Turkish base in Dohuk city. Turkey said that those persons were encouraged by the PKK to undermine Turkish interests. Arbil took many measures to calm the situation. It declared that such acts were unlawful and those who conducted them would be punished.
The Turkish leadership welcomed the steps taken by the KDP and said that Ankara and Arbil held the same fears because of the policies the PKK was practicing there.
Many Kurdish observers proclaimed that the PKK was planning on putting the Kurdish people in a confrontation with the KDP. They also stated that the PKK gave bribes to some local teenagers to criticize the KDP in the media.
The PKK accuses Arbil and Ankara of attempting to geopolitically strangle it. The PKK says that Turkey is now seeking to deploy more military bases in the areas of the PKK in the KRI. It points out that Turkey wants to tighten its grip on the PKK's strategic heartland in Qandil and Sinjar. The PKK also alleges that all these military moves are currently being carried out in cooperation with the KDP. Arbil is afraid that the PKK could succeed in pitting the Kurdish society against the KDP. In this regard, the PKK emphasizes that Arbil does not offer a positive model for the Kurdish future in comparison to the PKK's model.
The KDP also fears of the dominance of the political parties loyal to the PKK in Sinjar. In the long term, these parties will participate in the elections, and they will have formal representation in the Nineveh provincial council and in the Iraq parliament, too. It is expected that they would get 80% of the Yazidi's votes in Sinjar. This will deprive the KDP of one of the important electoral support centers in this city. This will enhance the role of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) that have a strategic partnership with the Yazidi's parties supported by the PKK.
Growing ties between Baghdad and the PKK has triggered Arbil's different concerns. During the war against Daesh, various signs were affirming that Baghdad might arm the PKK to fight that terrorist organization. Additionally, Baghdad deemed the PKK an important force to contain the Turkish ambitions in Mosul city. At that time, it also looked at the PKK as a potential ally to force the Turkish soldiers, in Bashiqa camp, to leave.
The PKK has defective relations with the leading Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The latter has wide disagreements with Baghdad over many issues. Hence, many political leaders in Baghdad have affirmed that the PKK might become a source of counterbalance to the influence of the KDP. Baghdad believes that Ankara and Arbil have a strong alliance in this part of Iraq. Thus, Baghdad would have to work with the other actors to change these political balances. Consequently, it is expected that the PKK will be a part of any plan targeting the KDP.
Some politicians in Baghdad are now thinking of making a bargain with Turkey. To cease any kind of links with the PKK, they assert that Turkey must support Baghdad at the expense of Arbil. Later, Baghdad will allow Ankara to expand its exports from 10 to 20 billion dollars annually. Furthermore, Baghdad will permit Ankara to open new border crossings to strengthen their trade relations.
On the other hand, Ankara feels that the other Kurdish parties also affect this scene. It maintains that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK), considered the second-largest party in KRI, has a relation with the PKK. Ankara affirms that such ties extend from Iraq to Syria. On one occasion, it referred to a statement by a member of the KDP when he said that his party would send troops to fight in Afrin against the Turkish invasion. Thus, the representative of the PUK in Ankara warned his leaders of the Turkish backlash. He said that Ankara might be forced to put the PUK on the list of terrorist groups. This will politically and economically affect al-Sulaymaniyah, the stronghold of this party.
The PUK is currently working on normalising its relations with Turkey. Some months ago, it decided to close the headquarters of the organisations affiliated to the PKK in Sulaimaniyah.
Qubad Talabani, who was the deputy prime minister of the KRI and one of the top leaders within the PUK, was the figure who issued that order.
The PUK also promised Turkey that it would not permit the PKK to penetrate the security system in Sulaimaniyah. Before that, Turkey had suspended the international flights to Arbil and Sulaimaniyah in the aftermath of the Kurdish referendum in 2017. While Ankara lifted those sanctions from Arbil, it did not do the same with Sulaimaniyah to punish it for its alleged links with the PKK. Observers say that this confirms that Ankara and Sulaimaniyah will not have stable relations in the future.
The PUK is momentarily thinking of the critical outcomes of the American-Iranian rivalry in Iraq. It thinks that this will overshadow the Kurdish-Kurdish relations in the KRI, which will be politically split into two axes. The first group will include Washington, Ankara, some Sunni Arab tribes, and the KDP. The second one will combine Tehran, Baghdad, the PMF, some Shiite Arab tribes, and the PUK. The PKK will be lined with the front that stands against the project of Turkey and the KDP. As a result, the interactions of these Kurdish parties will get more complicated and more divisions will be marked within the Kurdish community.
Moreover, Turkey points to the relations between the PKK and the Change Movement (Gorran). It has warned the leaders of this party of supporting the PKK. Gorran responded by stressing that Turkey wanted to exploit those accusations to clamp down on the parties in al-Sulaimaniyah city where the PUK and Gorran are working. If Turkey succeeds in achieving this aim, its strategic ally, the KDP, will become more powerful than the other Kurdish parties. From another side, Turkey in 2014 also alleged that Gorran had a cooperation with the Shiite parties in Baghdad and also with the PKK to establish its military forces in the KRI. Turkey believed that Gorran was preparing itself for a military conflict with the KDP. Thus, Turkey was afraid that such a military force of Gorran would merge with the PKK and the PMF to formulate new equations in the KRI.
Since 2014, severe variations have emerged between the PKK and the KDP. At least, the KDP affirms that the PKK is trying to destabilize the KRI by all possible means. The KDP feels that it might be geopolitically sieged by its rivals. It imagines that some politicians in Baghdad are thinking of limiting its role by creating an alliance encompassing the PKK, The PUK, the Change Movement, and the PMF. This problem cannot be solved without real agreement between Baghdad, Arbil, and the other regional powers for on how to deal with the future of the PKK in Iraq.
Diyari Salih is an Iraqi academic with a Ph.D. in Political Geography from the University of Baghdad and a Post-Doctorate in International Relations from the University of Warsaw. His research focuses on geopolitical issues in Iraq. He tweets at @DiyariFaily