Last week, Turkey’s general staff held an unprecedented press conference to announce that it was recommending direct strikes on Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) bases in Iraq’s Kurdish areas and establishing a buffer zone along the border with a heavy military presence. Frustrated by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) intransigence and unwillingness to “do more” to expel the PKK presence from northern Iraq, Turkish officials have made additional assertive remarks in recent days, accusing Iraqi Kurds of directly supporting terrorists (Terrorism Focus, April 17). KRG President Massoud Barzani responded in kind, stating that Iraqi Kurds would interfere in the Kurdish regions of Turkey if the Turkish military carried out any operations in Iraqi territory. Thus far, it has only been a war of words, but there have been disparate reports regarding Iraqi Kurdish military actions in response to the Turkish announcement.
Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that the Kurdistan government is deploying military reinforcements and weaponry along its border with Turkey in preparation for any Turkish incursion. Although the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), also headed by Barzani, denied reports of reinforcements, witnesses on the ground have reported that many peshmerga units have withdrawn from Mosul and redeployed along the border (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 15). Other reports have indicated that the reinforcements include 50 “dushkas,” which are heavy anti-aircraft machine guns, and armored vehicles (Hawlati, April 16).
Following the announcement of the proposed Turkish military plan against PKK installations in northern Iraq, witnesses also reported that two Turkish aircraft penetrated Iraqi airspace for about 10 minutes when they flew over Kista, a village near the Iraqi-Turkish border (Azzam, April 16). The Turks are not only putting a military squeeze on Iraqi Kurdistan, but are restricting trade along the Khabour Crossing, a vital trade link for the Kurds, to ratchet up the pressure. Turkish Minister of Foreign Trade Kursad Tuzmen said that Turkish trucks carrying material into Iraq will no longer use the Khabour Gate, whose collection tolls are a major source of revenue for the Kurdish government, and instead will start using the border gate with Syria to transport material into Iraqi territory (al-Bayyna al-Jadidah, April 15). The Turkish military also positioned about 50 tanks along the Turkish side of the Khabour checkpoint. If the Turkish blockade along the Khabour Gate continues, the Kurds will lose a significant source of income and influence. This will likely have a stronger effect in influencing Kurdish actions and rhetoric regarding the PKK.
Although most Turks and Kurds within their respective governments are eager to de-escalate and to resolve many issues through dialogue, a dangerous momentum may be building that both Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdistan region may not be able to resist if actions by both sides remain unchecked. While each side remains sensitive to its own security concerns, Turkey is checked by the EU accession process and the Kurds are constrained by the overwhelming regional pressures. Cooler heads may prevail, but other issues, such as the fast approaching referendum on Kirkuk and oil development in Iraq’s Kurdish region, could bring about a military confrontation between the two sides.