The conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has deepened the rift between rival Kurdish groups. If Turkish attacks continue, the Kurds’ fight against the “Islamic State” could be affected.
Hamina Hasan sadly packs up to leave the village of Zargali with the rest of her family. She has lost count but says this is not the first time she is leaving her home behind.
Just days before, she lost 10 neighbors as a result of Turkish airstrikes on their village.
“There were no PKK offices inside the village,” says 45-year-old Hamina as she departs in a truck. “None of those who were killed had anything to do with the PKK.”
Ankara said the location it bombed was used by the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state for Kurdish rights for well over three decades. But villagers and PKK officials in the area deny that. PKK outposts are, however, not far from the village.
Some Kurdish media outlets reported that as many as two PKK guerillas may have been killed in the airstrikes in Zargali, although the PKK has not confirmed such reports. It’s not, however, clear whether the PKK fighters were killed in the first airstrike on Zargali or later when they joined locals gathered to help after the first bomb was dropped.
Rivalry for Kurdish support
The renewed fighting between Turkey and PKK comes at a particularly sensitive time for Iraqi Kurds. They have in the past been affected by fighting between the PKK and Turkey as PKK headquarters are nestled deep in the rugged border mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey has launched over 20 ground operations into Iraqi Kurdish territory and at times local parties here have partnered with the Turks against the PKK.
This time around, however, the Ankara-PKK conflict is coming on the back of Iraqi Kurds’ fight against the “Islamic State” (IS).
The extremist organization posed an existential threat to Kurds in Iraq and Syria last year. That threat brought Kurds in the Middle East – uncharacteristically – together as they joined forces in fighting the jihadist group. But the honeymoon of Kurdish unity did not last long: Each Kurdish group has been vying for factional gains often at the expense of other groups.
Turkish airstrikes in particular have deepened the rifts between the PKK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the largest ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan. The two groups have been competing for influence among Kurdish populations across the region and have had a tense relationship over the control of Kurdish territories in northern Syria, or Rojava. A PKK affiliate known as Democratic Union Party (PYD) administers the Kurdish areas of Syria.
When Turkey launched its first airstrikes on July 24, Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani, who is also the head of KDP, issued a statement calling on both sides to return to the negotiating table. The statement was criticized by the PKK and many Kurds for not going as far as condemning the Turkish attacks.
“The continuation of the conflict will be detrimental to the people and residents of the borders areas of [Iraq’s] Kurdistan region,” Barzani said. “People have the right to ask why should the Kurdistan region become a battleground and their lives and peace be disrupted.”
Many saw the statement as tacit endorsement of Turkish attacks. Barzani later condemned the Turkish attack on Zargali that occurred on August 1.
In the highly polarized atmosphere of Kurdish politics, any incident is likely to be picked upon by rival groups to settle scores or undermine one another.
In contrast to Barzani’s message, other Kurdish politicians have had stronger reactions to Turkish attacks.
“We condemn any resort to violence and war and ask for the attacks to stop,” read a statement from Yusef Sadiq, the speaker of Kurdish parliament on July 25. “The presidency of the Kurdistan parliament calls on the government of Turkey to take steps toward peace.”
Ankara carried out further airstrikes targeting the PKK within Turkey this week.
Kurds have been at the forefront of regional forces battling IS in Iraq and Syria.
Salam Abdulqadir, a Kurdish affairs’ analyst, expressed concern that the continuation of the Turkish attacks could exacerbate tension between Kurdish parties, in particular the KDP and PKK. This, he said, could have a negative effect on the Kurdish fight against IS.
“The PKK guerillas and [Iraqi Kurdish] peshmerga forces are together on some frontlines,” says Abdulqadir. “More tensions between their parties might mean things could go wrong on the frontlines if the tensions are not curbed.”
But PKK officials rule out concerns that political tensions might shift to the frontlines against IS or even clashes.
“I don’t think Kurds will fight against each other on the frontlines,” said Damhat Agid, a PKK spokesperson. “The war against IS will continue for a while and our forces will continue their fight against IS in all areas.
While Kurdish parties are occupied with gaining political advantage out of the new round of fighting between Ankara and PKK, local villagers are the ones paying for the outcome of the policies.
As she leaves Zargali, Hamina recalls the many times her area was bombed by Saddam Hussein’s military during the Kurdish insurgency against the Iraqi government in the 1980s and Turkey since 1990s.
“Under Saddam there were many nights we had to abandon our homes and go to the mountains for fear of Iraqi bombardments,” Hamina says. “But Turkey’s bombardments have been far heavier.”
You can follow Mohammed A. Salih on Twitter @MohammedASalih