October 27, 2017

Turkish and Iraqi cooperation against the Kurds

Semalka border crossing near Faysh Khabur

Now that the last areas held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are being retaken, the Iraqi government has expressed its intentions to reassert federal control over all areas not formally recognized as part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Iraqi forces continue operations against the KRG in areas of northern Iraq that are not technically part of the three provinces that make up the autonomous region.*

The initial move was to eject Kurdish peshmerga forces from the city and province of Kirkuk. Kirkuk had been under Kurdish control since 2014 when the KRG deployed its peshmerga there to defend the city against the ISIS threat. It also moved forces into Ninawa (Niniveh) province to stop further ISIS advances after the city of Mosul fell to the group.

The Iraqis have also notified the KRG leadership that they intend to exercise federal control over the entire Iraqi border, including the KRG borders with Syria, Turkey and Iran.

Semalka border crossing

The first KRG border area to be placed under federal control will be the Semalka border crossing - more commonly referred to as the Faysh Khabur crossing, named for the town closest to the crossing. The crossing is also close to the point at which the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Syria meet.

The timing of this move is interesting. With ISIS's loss of territory, Baghdad now has the resources to reassert control over Iraqi territory that the Kurds have defended since 2014. It is also a month after the Kurds conducted a referendum on declaring an independent Kurdish state, infuriating the Iraqi leadership. I don't think it is a coincidence that Baghdad is also moving to control all oil operations in the country, including those in the KRG.

However, I believe the primary motivator for the "federalization" of the borders is an agreement between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi. Both leaders share a common desire to make sure the Kurds do not achieve greater autonomy. Al-'Abadi is concerned with the Kurds in Iraq, while Erdoğan is concerned with the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria. Having the Iraqi federal government control the only border crossing between the KRG area in Iraq and the Syrian Kurdish area would be beneficial to Erdoğan.

It can get worse. The Semalka border crossing is used by the United States Central Command to ship military equipment to the Syrian Kurds, who make up the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF has played a key role in the ongoing military campaign to remove ISIS from the country.

The American funding, training and equipping of the SDF caused a rift in U.S.-Turkish relations - the Turks regard the Syrian Kurdish YPG party to be nothing more than an extension of the designated terrorist Turkish Kurd separatist group known as the PKK.

I have no doubt that Erdoğan and al-'Abadi are working closely to curb Kurdish desires for greater autonomy. The Syrian Kurds hoped that their contributions in the fight against ISIS would gain them favor with both the United States and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and lead to some form of autonomy like their cousins in Iraq. Al-Asad has already said that after the removal of ISIS, he intends to reassert regime control over the entire country - no Kurdish self-rule.

When all is said and done, despite their contributions and sacrifices, the Kurds will be no better off than they were before ISIS. In some cases, it will be worse.
* The KRG is composed of Dohuk, Arbil and Sulaymaniyah provinces.