Turkey, Iran deploy drones in north Iraq against Kurd rebels

Turkey, Iran deploy drones in north Iraq against Kurd rebels
The spokesman of Turkey’s outlawed PKK, Zagros Hiwa, is seen during an interview with AFP in Qandil, the mountainous PKK stronghold in northern Iraq. (AFP)
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Updated 02 October 2020

Turkey, Iran deploy drones in north Iraq against Kurd rebels

Turkey, Iran deploy drones in north Iraq against Kurd rebels
  • The PKK has used Qandil for decades as a rear-base for its insurgency against the Turkish state

SULAIMANIYAH/Iraq: Turkey and Iran are increasingly adopting “game-changing” drones as their weapon of choice against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, prompting fears for the safety of civilians and stoking geopolitical tensions.
“Not a day goes by without us seeing a drone,” said Mohammad Hassan, mayor of Qandil, the mountainous Iraqi stronghold of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“They fly so low Qandil’s residents can see them with their naked eye,” Hassan told AFP.
The PKK has used Qandil for decades as a rear-base for its insurgency against the Turkish state.
The Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDK-I) has similar rear-bases in other remote areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, from which it launches attacks across the border into Iran.
Turkey and Iran consider the Kurdish rebels as “terrorists” and routinely conduct cross-border ground assaults, air strikes and artillery bombardments against their Iraq bases.
Starting in 2018, both countries began using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance and even targeted assassinations in northern Iraq.
Drone use has expanded dramatically since Turkey launched a new assault in June, analysts and residents of affected areas told AFP.
Activists said dozens of border villages and adjacent farms have been abandoned by their terrified residents.
The drone strikes have also prevented thousands of Yazidis from returning to their homes in Sinjar district, close to the Syrian border, where PKK elements now have a presence.
“The Turkish bombing causes so much terror, so Yazidis are not coming home,” Sinjar Mayor Mahma Khalil told AFP.
Despite public criticism, Turkey has continued its drone warfare — likely because of new strides against the PKK.
For years, the PKK sheltered in Iraq’s mountains, where manned warplanes and ground troops struggled to reach them.
But drones have allowed Ankara to track, identify and eliminate PKK targets within minutes, Nicholas Heras of the Institute for the Study of War told AFP.
“Turkey’s use of military drones in northern Iraq has been a game-changer in its war against the PKK,” he said.
Ankara is now swapping expensive fighter-bombers like the US F-16 for drones like the domestically-produced Bayraktar TB2, which has better surveillance, can fly for 24 hours and is cheaper — so “expendable” if downed by the PKK, said Turkish drone expert Sibel Duz.
In an exclusive interview in Qandil, PKK spokesman Zagros Hiwa told AFP Turkey had created a 15 km buffer zone in northern Iraq with the help of its drones.
“Our forces have downed seven drones this year,” he said, declining to provide details of PKK losses.
The PKK has had limited success with improvised drones of its own, commercial models fitted with explosives.
A US source familiar with Turkey’s drones program said US special operations forces in northern Iraq were bristling at the new “frequency and intensity” of strikes.
“The Turks are overflying US positions with armed assets, which is a no-no. There is general mistrust and irritation over all this,” the source said.
Iran first began deploying aircraft fitted with cameras during its 1980-88 war with Iraq.
The newer MoHajjer-6 and Shahed-129 are Tehran’s weapons of choice for northern Iraq, said Adam Rawnsley, who tracks Iranian drones for the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“The way Iran is using drones against Kurdish targets in Iraq is 180 degrees different than how they use drones everywhere else. It’s much more sophisticated,” he said.
In a rare interview this spring, the head of Tehran’s drone division Col. Akbar Karimloo told local media Iran uses the aircraft for both surveillance and attack, and to provide forward observation for artillery and missile launchers.
Earlier this month, Iran said it would “take coordinated steps” with Turkey to counter Kurdish rebel activity along its borders. It did not specifically mention drones.
Baghdad and Kurdish authorities have said little on the expanding drone campaigns, and Iraqi officials have told AFP privately they have no leverage over Turkey or Iran.
After a Turkish drone strike killed two top Iraqi officers in the north in August, Baghdad expressed outrage but did not pressure Ankara.
“The general problem Iraq has is that larger powers tend to use it as a shooting gallery,” Rawnsley told AFP.
Wim Zwijnenburg, who works on disarmament for Dutch peace organization PAX, said avenues for recourse were limited.
“A lot of these strikes are in areas which are not very populated, so there’s little information from people or journalists on the ground,” he said.
Indeed, neither activists nor officials could provide a specific death toll from drone strikes in the north.
“That only adds to the obscurity of the drone campaigns,” Zwijnenburg told AFP.

Security Council members approve choice of new UN envoy to Libya

Jan Kubis, the recently appointed UN special envoy to Libya. (Reuters file photo)
Jan Kubis, the recently appointed UN special envoy to Libya. (Reuters file photo)
Updated 16 January 2021

Security Council members approve choice of new UN envoy to Libya

Jan Kubis, the recently appointed UN special envoy to Libya. (Reuters file photo)
  • Veteran Slovak diplomat Jan Kubis will be secretary-general Antonio Guterres’s representative to the country
  • Glimmers of hope for Libyans as progress reported at first meeting of Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’s advisory committee

NEW YORK: Security Council members on Friday approved the appointment of veteran Slovak diplomat Jan Kubis as the UN’s special envoy to Libya.

It came as UN officials said significant progress has been made in Geneva this week during the inaugural meeting of the advisory committee for the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres nominated Kubis to be his envoy, a position that has been vacant since early March last year, when Ghassan Salameh resigned due to stress after less than three years in the job.

A number of replacements were suggested but members of the Security Council failed to agree on one. In December they overcame their differences and approved the choice of Bulgarian diplomat Nikolai Mladenov — only for him to surprise everyone by turning down the offer for “personal and family reasons.”

Kubis is currently the UN’s Special Coordinator for Lebanon. He previously held similar positions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric hailed what the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) described as significant progress during the first meeting of the LPDF’s advisory committee, which began in Geneva on Jan. 13 and concludes on Jan. 16.

“The mission hopes shortly they will be able to narrow down the major differences and reach near consensus on many of the contentious issues concerning the selection-mechanism proposals,” Dujarric said.

The formation of the advisory committee was announced on Jan. 3. Its 18 members, including women, young people and cultural figures, were chosen to reflect the country’s wide geographical and political diversity.

The secretary-general’s acting special representative for Libya, Stephanie Williams, had indicated that the main task for the committee would be to deliberate on the contentious issues that have plagued the selection of a unified executive authority. The aim is to develop solid recommendations the LPDF can consider in line with the political roadmap agreed by its 75 members during their first round of talks in Tunis last year.

This roadmap represents a rights-based process designed to culminate in democratic and inclusive national elections Dec. 24 this year. The date is also that of Libya’s 70th Independence Day. The elections will mark the end of the transitional phase for the country and chart a new way forward.

“This unwavering achievement, this date to return the sovereign decision to its rightful owners, is our top priority,” said Williams in her opening remarks at the advisory committee meeting in Geneva this week.

She also rejected claims that UNSMIL will have any say in the selection of the new executive authority. “This is a Libyan-Libyan decision,” Williams said, adding that the interim authority is intended to “shoulder the responsibility in a participatory manner and not on the basis of power-sharing, as some believed.”

She added: “We want a participatory formula where there is no victor, no vanquished; a formula for coexistence for Libyans of various origins for a specific period of time until we pass on the torch.

UNSMIL spokesman Jean Alam said the Geneva talks have already overcome some major hurdles. This builds on the political accomplishments since the Tunis meeting at which a consensus was reached on the political roadmap, the eligibility criteria for positions in the unified executive authority, and the authority’s most important prerogative: setting a date for the elections.

He also reported “very encouraging progress” in military matters since the signing of a ceasefire agreement in October by the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC), the members of which include five senior officers selected by the Government of National Accord and five selected by the Libyan National Army.

“This includes the recent exchanges of detainees conducted under the JMC’s supervision, as part of wider confidence-building measures; the resumption of flights to all parts of Libya; the full resumption of oil production and export; as well as the proposed unification and restructuring of the Petroleum Facilities Guards, in addition to the ongoing serious talks on the opening of the coastal road between Misrata and Sirte, which we hope will take place very soon,” said Alam.

He also hailed “promising developments” relating to the economy, including the recent unification of the exchange rate by the Central Bank of Libya, a step that requires the formation of a new authority for it to be implemented.

“The recent meeting between the ministries of finance was an important effort to unify the budget and allocate sufficient funding to improve services and rebuild Libya’s deteriorating infrastructure, particularly the electrical grid,” Alam said.

“All of these reforms are steps that will bring national institutions together to work in establishing a more durable and equitable economic arrangement.”

Williams added that without a unified executive authority, it would difficult to implement these steps.