Turkey’s search for a true partner to take on the PKK

Turkey’s search for a true partner to take on the PKK

Ankara has been involved in two weeks of intense talks in its search for allies to step up its fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has its headquarters in the Kandil Mountains of northern Iraq. The Turkish government has been looking for an ally – preferably allies - to start a joint operation targeting Sinjar, which has been tagged as a “second Kandil” by Ankara as the PKK refuses to leave despite the town being cleared of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) back in 2015. 

The highest level talks between Turkish and Iranian military commanders since the 1979 Islamic Revolution took place on Aug. 15 in Ankara. Iranian Chief of General Staff Mohammad Bagheri was received by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who said after the meeting that they discussed potential plans for a joint operation against the PKK. 

A week later, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was in Baghdad for talks with his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Çavuşoğlu’s motivation in first going to Baghdad before immediately going to the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) capital Arbil was to try to convince the Iraqi Kurds to cancel their decision to hold an independence referendum planned for late September. However, Ankara also used the visit to demand action from Baghdad against the PKK, with Çavuşoğlu saying Turkey would support the Iraqi government in clearing PKK militants from Iraqi soil. 

Al-Jaafari reportedly said Baghdad was ready to launch an initiative “to deal with the PKK problem, in coordination with concerned countries but without violating Iraqi sovereignty.” This is the classic rhetoric of Baghdad, offered to Ankara by numerous different Iraqi governments over the past 14 years without delivering any concrete steps. 

Last but not the least in Turkey’s efforts to find a partner to wipe the PKK from Iraqi territories was the raising of the issue during U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ stopover in Ankara during his recent Middle East tour. Having gone through drama with Ankara due to the Trump administration’s decision to provide heavy weapons to the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers an offshoot of the PKK, Mattis was prepared to make a strong pledge to ease Turkish concerns. 

Since the early months of Trump’s presidency, Mattis has often tried to provide breathing space in distressed relations by candidly looking for a better U.S. strategy in Iraq that would strengthen Ankara’s hand. By and large, he is regarded as a solid channel by Ankara for absorbing Turkish concerns and delivering the right messages in Washington. However, the recent Turkish-Iranian rapprochement may also have been influential in Washington’s offer of more substantial assistance to Ankara to defeat the PKK.  

Although the U.S. is ready to do more, cooperating in a major ground operation against the PKK in Sinjar or Kandil is still a nonstarter for Washington. First, there are the legal boundaries. The current mandate of U.S. troops in Iraq is action specific, which means that in order to authorize any U.S. army personnel in assisting Turkey’s fight against the PKK, the Trump administration must get approval from Congress. 

Anyone familiar with the current anti-Turkey mood in both the Senate and the House of Representatives knows that such an attempt would be simply suicidal. Along with the need for approval from Congress for the involvement of the U.S. troops, U.S. policymakers are also convinced that a major incursion by Turkey to clear the PKK from Sinjar would damage the delicate ethnic and sectarian political balances in Iraq, which are already barely being held together. 

U.S. sources confirm that there has been talk in Washington since the final years of former President Barack Obama for providing intelligence to Ankara in strikes to kill key PKK figures in northern Iraq. It seems that this scenario is now back on Washington’s agenda due to the urgent need to keep Turkey on board. However, there is also pushback from the generals running the show in Syria, who fear that U.S. involvement in conspiracies against PKK leaders would antagonize their major partners in defeating ISIL. 

But whether it is done in cooperation with Iran or the U.S., an aggressive crackdown on the PKK in Iraq by Turkey would undoubtedly be a huge game-changer for the future of the region.