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Ankara backs Baghdad in Kirkuk operation against PKK

A banner bearing a portrait of Kurdish regional president Massoud Barzani is seen as Iraqi forces advance towards Kirkuk on Monday. (AFP)
ANKARA: The escalating tension between Baghdad and Irbil following Monday’s wide-ranging military operation launched by the Iraqi army to regain control of oil fields and military bases in Kirkuk could have serious repercussions for Turkey’s Iraq policy.
Reports and images showing members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) freely roaming the streets of the northern Iraqi city amid insistent calls from ethnic Turkmen groups to oust the militant group accelerated Ankara’s reaction.
Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement on Monday emphasizing that Ankara will stand with the central government in Baghdad “to end the presence of PKK in Iraqi territories.”
“We welcome the Iraqi government’s statement that no tolerance will be shown to PKK members in Kirkuk and that the mobilization of these groups will be considered an act of war,” the ministry said. The statement urged the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) “not to make another mistake” by allowing a PKK presence in the region because it “will be held responsible if it lets the PKK find shelter.”
Turkey’s interest in Kirkuk derives mainly from its ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural and historical ties with the Turkmens, who are the third-largest ethnic group in the city, as well as from its perception of the threat from the expanding PKK presence there.
Bilgay Duman, an expert on Iraqi affairs at Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, said any step that Baghdad takes to eradicate the PKK will be warmly supported by Ankara.
“Turkey would not directly intervene in the region. But if the PKK becomes much more active in its positions in Sinjar, west of Mosul, Turkey may conduct a joint operation with the Iraqi central government,” Duman told Arab News.
“However,” he added, “Turkey would not prefer a deepening of the conflict in the region between the KRG and Baghdad because any security and power vacuum is likely to be filled by the PKK as well as by Daesh, which is still active in the region.
“For this reason, Ankara may play the role of mediator between the Iraqi government and the KRG in order to appease the tension. It may also raise the problems of Iraqi Turkmens in this process, especially following the change in demographics in the region,” Duman continued. “However, that would surely depend on (the KRG’s) willingness to meet Turkey’s main demand, which is the cancellation and withdrawal of all steps taken following the independence referendum held on Sept. 25.”
Turkey’s National Security Council also convened on Monday, under the chairmanship of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and recommended the government close airspace to flights from northern Iraq.
Ali Semin, a Middle East expert from Istanbul-based think tank Bilgesam, said Turkey should not stay silent and miss the opportunity to activate its Iraqi policy in line with the unfolding regional dynamics, although it has so far followed a “wait-and-see” policy by not closing its borders to Kurdistan even after the independence referendum.
“The regional balances are in favor of Ankara. In the first stage, Turkey may support Turkmens on political and diplomatic fronts. It can also provide military and logistical support to the Iraqi central government as part of joint counterterrorism efforts,” Semin told Arab News.
“The PKK’s presence in the region legitimizes Ankara’s use of its right to cross-border intervention in line with its decades-long security cooperation with Baghdad, like it did before several times in the Qandil mountains where PKK bases are located,” he added.
Semin also underlined that, in light of the shifting regional balance of power, Turkey may give its support to Iraq’s Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Units), a group of mainly Shiite militias that also incorporates Turkmen forces.
“Ankara has three priorities: Preventing oil-rich Kirkuk’s inclusion in the KRG, protecting Turkmen groups in the region, and stopping the independence process of Kurdistan,” Semin said. “Therefore, it can design new alliances that favor these three elements in consideration of its evolving relationship with political groups in Baghdad. Following the independence referendum, (Kurdish President Masoud) Barzani lost his major ally, Ankara, which now takes every possible opportunity to improve its ties with the Iraqi central government. Therefore, the escalation of tension in Kirkuk is disadvantageous for the Kurds who have ignited an ethnic conflict between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens.”
Speaking to reporters at the Parliament on Monday, the deputy chairman of Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ozturk Yilmaz, called for Kirkuk to be granted special status whereby Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds would be entitled to equal representation.

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