How one Aleppo neighborhood continues to defy siege of Syria’s Assad

Special How one Aleppo neighborhood continues to defy siege of Syria’s Assad
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Updated 31 January 2023

How one Aleppo neighborhood continues to defy siege of Syria’s Assad

How one Aleppo neighborhood continues to defy siege of Syria’s Assad
  • Kurdish-majority Sheikh Maksoud has been in the news since a five-story residential building collapsed there on Jan. 22
  • Syrian army’s Fourth Division has blocked vital deliveries of food, fuel and medicine to the enclave since March 2022

ALEPPO, Syria: At 2:30 a.m. on January 22, Sheikh Maksoud, a Kurdish-majority neighborhood in Syria’s Aleppo, was struck by tragedy. A five-story residential building collapsed, burying dozens of residents under a mountain of rubble.

After round-the-clock rescue efforts, 16 bodies were recovered and two survivors were brought to the neighborhood’s hospital for treatment. According to state media, the structure’s foundations had been weakened by water leakage.

For residents of Sheikh Maksoud, this is just the latest in a litany of disasters as the neighborhood struggles to survive under a crushing siege imposed by opposition and regime groups alike.

Over the past decade, Aleppo has been transformed from a once-thriving trade, travel and cultural hub into a battleground, leaving much of the city in ruins.

Slowly, as the frontline moved elsewhere, Syria’s second-biggest city began to rebuild. However, Sheikh Maksoud, an autonomous enclave on the northwestern edge of the city, continues to fight for its life.




A family of internally displaced persons cooks a meal in Serdem Camp in Shahba, located between Afrin and Aleppo. AN Photo by Ali Ali

With half of the 2-square-kilometer neighborhood left destroyed after years of fighting between opposition groups and the neighborhood’s self-defense militias, the people of Sheikh Maksoud have done their best to continue living life as normal.

Over the past year, one force has been particularly brutal in depriving the neighborhood’s residents of everything from medicine to fuel and even food — the regime’s Iran-backed Fourth Division.

With winter biting, residents are struggling to cope.

“We’ve been burning trash because there is no fuel. It gave me a chest infection. I’ve been to the hospital twice this week,” said one resident of Sheikh Maksoud when Arab News visited the neighborhood in December.

Merai Sibli, a member of the General Council of Sheikh Maksoud and Ashrafiyah, said fuel had not reached the neighborhood for more than 50 days, with residents often receiving an hour or less of electricity per day as their private generators run empty.

“We can’t get fuel. Children and the elderly can’t cope with the cold,” said Sibli. “They don’t even allow medicine to pass here. What is allowed to pass is very expensive. Six months ago, they cut off our flour, and all bakeries were closed for nearly 20 days.”

According to Sibli, the Fourth Division demands up to SYP2.5 million (more than $380) for every fuel truck which enters the neighborhood — a heavy price, considering the average monthly salary in Syria is just SYP150,000 (approximately $23).

“Soon our workshops and tailors will shut down because they are without electricity, and in the end, all of our youth will be out of work and forced to sit at home in the dark.”

The Fourth Division has roots going back to the 1980s, when Hafez Assad’s brother Rifaat fled the country and his paramilitary group, Defense Companies, dissolved into several militia groups.

The Fourth Division would eventually form out of these groups, and was later used to crush uprisings in Deraa, Baniyas, Idlib and Homs from the outset of the Syrian crisis. A Human Rights Watch Report from 2011 documents the Fourth Division’s participation in several abuses, including arbitrary detentions and the killing of protesters.

The de facto commander of the division is Maher Assad, the younger brother of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. According to an investigation by the Lebanese Al-Modon newspaper, the Fourth Division has been enjoying Iranian support — material, financial and advisory — since the start of Iran’s intervention in the Syrian civil war.

FASTFACTS

• Sheikh Maksoud is under the control of the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

• Many buildings in Aleppo were destroyed or damaged during Syria’s 11-year conflict.

• Aleppo is Syria’s second largest city and was its commercial center before its destruction.

Early on in the conflict, the Syrian military was overwhelmed by defections and internal conflict, an effect from which the Fourth Division was not spared. As with many other units in the Syrian army, the Fourth Division was forced to rely on Iranian militias to bolster its strength.

The Fourth Division’s siege is not limited to Sheikh Maksoud. It extends to the city’s northern countryside, in the Shahba region, between Afrin and Aleppo. Shahba includes the town of Tel Rifaat (with a population of approximately 18,500, of which 15,700 are internally displaced persons, or IDPs) and five camps, which are all home to thousands of IDPs from the Afrin region.

At some regime checkpoints in Shahba, photos of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are displayed next to photos of Bashar and Hafez Assad.

“No one is joining the Syrian military anymore. Their soldiers are all Iranian mercenaries. When those mercenaries come here, their aim is to take everything and share it with the state,” Muhammad Hanan, the co-chair of the Tel Rifaat district, told Arab News.

Hanan explained that the Iranian militia presence in the Shahba region serves mainly to protect the Shiite majority towns of Nubl and Zahraa, between Tel Rifaat and Aleppo. 

From 2013 to 2016, the region was controlled by opposition groups, which were ousted by the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units, or YPG. At that time, Syrian state military presence was mainly limited to small towns and villages in the area.




The Iran-backed Fourth Division’s siege is not limited to Sheikh Maksoud but extends to the Shahba area. AN Photo by Ali Ali

However, after the Turkish invasion of Afrin in 2018, government forces — and consequently, Iranian mercenaries — began to grow in number on the pretext of protecting the region from Turkish-backed opposition groups.

“In the end, they are not defending anything. Until now, the Syrian state takes every opportunity to weaken us and take over all of Shahba,” Hanan said.

Hanan and other local officials told Arab News that regime checkpoints block vital aid from the UN and other NGOs from reaching the region.

“The regime’s Fourth Division has closed the roads. If you want to bring something from outside, like fuel or propane, you have to give them a cut,” Dr. Azad Resho, administrator of Avrin Hospital in Shahba, told Arab News.

“It’s the same with the medicine. It has to come from the regime side. When international health organizations give aid to Syria, because the Syrian regime has status, all aid has to come through the regime.

“There are also international forces here, like Russia and Iran. It is all a political game. Even if the regime were to give aid, it must be in the interests of these forces. Because of this, we have become the victims of politics.”

Hassan, an administrator in the Shahba branch of the Kurdish Red Crescent, told Arab News: “The situation is terrible. There is no medicine at all. We just deal with emergency cases. We have no dermatologists, no nephrologists, and we have no equipment such as MRI machines.

“For patients with these needs, we have to send them to Aleppo. That has its own problems; the regime often prevents these people from entering (the city).”




A file photo from January 2017 shows Syrians walking past a poster of President Bashar Assad in Aleppo’s Saadallah Al-Jabiri Square. AFP

Under the suffocating embargo of Sheikh Maksoud and the Shahba region, however, there is one commodity that the Fourth Division appears happy to allow into these areas — drugs.

Last year, a New York Times investigation discovered that the Fourth Division was responsible for the production and distribution of Captagon pills and crystal meth across Syria, with the division moving the drugs to border crossings and port cities.

“Just recently, we confiscated and burned 124 kg of hashish. These 124 kg were brought in by the Syrian regime — by the Fourth Division, Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups. They attempted to bring it in containers of oil,” Qehreman, an official in the Internal Security Forces of Sheikh Maksoud, told Arab News.

“They want to bring some things in, especially narcotic pills, with their members, and spread them among the people.”

Sibli said that despite the siege, “our people are very resilient.”

“Does the regime want us to lose and return us to the year 2007? They insist we must all be under one flag, one language and one leader.

“Because we in Sheikh Maksoud want coexistence and brotherhood of the peoples, the regime doesn’t accept us. But of course, people who have found their freedom will never return to the regime’s embrace.”


Eight rockets fired at Turkish base in Iraq

Eight rockets fired at Turkish base in Iraq
Updated 01 February 2023

Eight rockets fired at Turkish base in Iraq

Eight rockets fired at Turkish base in Iraq
  • Iraqi contractor in the base was wounded
  • No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack

IRBIL, Iraq: Unidentified attackers fired eight rockets at a Turkish military base in northern Iraq on Wednesday, two of which landed inside the facility, the Counter-Terrorism Group, a security organization in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, said.
A Turkish security source said the attack had caused no damage and there were no casualties in the base, without going into further detail.
An Iraqi security source who declined to be identified said an Iraqi contractor in the base had been wounded.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in the early hours on the Zilkan base, which hosts Turkish troops in Ninevah province of northern Iraq.
Turkiye has been carrying out operations in Iraq for decades against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has bases in the region. It is designated a terrorist group by Turkiye, the United States, and the European Union.
The group launched an insurgency in southeast Turkiye in 1984 in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.


Abbas succession battle could ‘collapse’ Palestinian Authority: think tank

Abbas succession battle could ‘collapse’ Palestinian Authority: think tank
Updated 01 February 2023

Abbas succession battle could ‘collapse’ Palestinian Authority: think tank

Abbas succession battle could ‘collapse’ Palestinian Authority: think tank
  • Abbas heads the PA, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah, the secular political movement founded by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: The future battle to succeed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas could trigger “mass protest, repression” and the outright collapse of the Palestinian Authority, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said Wednesday.
The think tank released its forecast a day after the aging and increasingly unpopular 87-year-old Abbas met in Ramallah with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was in the region to urge calm amid a spike in Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Given Abbas’s age and persistent rumors about his poor health, speculation on his successor is common in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority (PA) is based.
The Brussels-based ICG predicted in its report that “elections based on legal procedures” were “the least likely” outcome when Abbas vacates the presidency.
Abbas heads the PA, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah, the secular political movement founded by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Abbas was elected president after Arafat died in 2004. Palestinians have had no presidential elections since.
The report says Abbas, who has been unwilling to designate a successor, has also “hollowed out or disabled the institutions and procedures that would otherwise decide who will take his place.”
It is therefore “unclear who will succeed him, and by what process,” ICG said, warning of a possible “descent into mass protest, repression, violence and even the PA’s collapse.”
According to the report, any last-ditch effort to name a successor to ease a transition process “would go awry.”
Abbas has repeatedly called off plans to hold presidential polls, as recently as 2021 when he scrapped scheduled elections citing Israel’s refusal to allow voting in annexed east Jerusalem, which Palestinians claim as their future capital.
Palestinian experts widely suspected Abbas backed away from the polls over fears Fatah would be trounced by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

While Abbas has not named a successor, he has elevated PA civil affairs minister Hussein Al-Sheikh, who he tapped for the number two spot in the PLO.
The ICG report names Sheikh and PA intelligence chief Majid Faraj as possible successors.
Though the two men hold significant power within the PA and are seen as able to work with the international community, the report notes “neither has been able to win much support in Palestinian society.”
It identifies second-tier “would-be successors,” among them Palestinian Football Association chief Jibril Rajoub, prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh and Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief exiled to the United Arab Emirates after falling out with Abbas.
“Each of these men has his own network,” the report says, but none “could stand on his own.”

 


Iraqi PM says banking reforms reveal fraudulent dollar transactions

Iraqi PM says banking reforms reveal fraudulent dollar transactions
Updated 01 February 2023

Iraqi PM says banking reforms reveal fraudulent dollar transactions

Iraqi PM says banking reforms reveal fraudulent dollar transactions
  • Iraq has in recent months been making efforts to ensure its banking system is compliant with the international electronic transfer system known as SWIFT

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s premier said Tuesday that new banking regulations had revealed fraudulent dollar transactions made from his country, as the fresh controls coincide with a drop in the local currency’s value.
Iraq has in recent months been making efforts to ensure its banking system is compliant with the international electronic transfer system known as SWIFT.
Referring to the new controls, Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani hailed “a real reform of the banking system,” but denounced “falsified invoices, money going out fraudulently,” in particular as foreign currency payments for imports.
“That is a reality,” he said in an interview on state television.
The adoption of the SWIFT system was supposed to allow for greater transparency, tackle money laundering and help to enforce international sanctions, such as those against Iran and Russia.
An adviser to Sudani had said that since mid-November, Iraqi banks wanting to access dollar reserves stored in the United States must make transfers using the electronic system.
The US Federal Reserve will then examine the requests and block them if it finds them suspicious.
According to the adviser, the Fed had so far rejected 80 percent of the transfer requests over concerns of the funds’ final recipients.
Before the introduction of the new regulations, “we were selling $200 million or $300 million a day,” Sudani said.
“Now, the central bank provides $30 million, $40 million, $50 million,” he said, questioning: “What were we importing in a single day for $300 million?“
“There are products that were entering (Iraq) for prices that make no sense. Clearly, the objective was to take foreign currency out of Iraq,” he said. “This must stop.”
Money may have been transported to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan province “and from there to neighboring countries,” Sudani said, without specifying whether he was referring to Turkiye, Iran or war-torn Syria.
He said the new controls had been planned for two years, in accordance with an agreement between Iraq’s central bank and US financial authorities, and deplored previous failures to put them in place.
Iraq, which is trying to move past four decades of war and unrest, is plagued by endemic corruption.
The official exchange rate is fixed by the government at 1,470 dinars to the dollar, but the currency was trading at around 1,680 on Tuesday on unofficial markets amid dollar scarcity.
The drop has sparked sporadic protests by Iraqis worried about their purchasing power.
Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and the new central bank chief will be among a delegation traveling to Washington on February 7 to discuss the new mechanism and the fluctuating exchange rate, Sudani said.


How Arab governments are leveraging modern technology to conserve limited water resources 

How Arab governments are leveraging modern technology to conserve limited water resources 
Updated 01 February 2023

How Arab governments are leveraging modern technology to conserve limited water resources 

How Arab governments are leveraging modern technology to conserve limited water resources 
  • Identifying ways to mitigate and adapt to climate pressures has become a top priority for MENA countries
  • Innovations can help conserve freshwater, recycle wastewater and reduce harm of desalinating seawater

DUBAI: For decades, the Middle East and North Africa region has struggled to meet its growing water needs. With populations booming and natural sources of freshwater rapidly depleting, finding sustainable solutions to address the precarious state of the region’s water security is more urgent than ever.

Water insecurity has exacerbated conflicts and political tensions in many Arab countries, significantly impacting the health and well-being of its people. In nations such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and even several of the Gulf states, many communities lack access to plentiful clean water.

While about 40 percent of the global population experiences water scarcity, the MENA region is considered among the world’s most water-insecure, with about 90 percent of children living in areas of high or extremely high water stress. According to UNICEF, the region is home to 11 of the world’s 17 most water-stressed countries.

The reputed home of the biblical Garden of Eden, Iraq's southern marshes of Chibayish, have been battered by drought as well as reduced river flows from neighboring Turkey and Iran. (AFP)

“Countries with rapid population growth, an arid climate, and heavily water-consuming agricultural activities are at a much higher risk of facing significant water scarcity before 2050. These nations will therefore require larger counter operations in order to negate the pending impact,” Walid Saad, CEO and co-founder of World of Farming, told Arab News.

“This is a challenge that requires a collaborative approach between public and private sector organizations, and the implementation of technology and innovative solutions across industries, to help ensure greater water efficiency and security for future generations.”

A 2020 report by Orient Planet Research found that the Gulf Cooperation Council area’s water needs will reach 33,733 cubic meters per year by 2050. However, the region’s projected future storage is just 25,855 cubic meters.

Orient Planet Reseach illustration

This means the region needs to boost its water stocks by 77 percent to meet the requirements of its population within the next 30 years.

Identifying ways to mitigate and adapt to climate pressures has become a top priority for regional governments. The coming year is expected to be one of the hottest on record, with extreme weather events likely to grow in scale and frequency and, in the process, exacerbate existing problems of the water-stressed region.

INNUMBERS

11 World’s most water-stressed countries (out of a total of 17) that are in MENA region.

90% Children in areas of high or extremely high water stress in MENA.

77% Increase in water stocks needed by 2050 to meet GCC population’s requirements.

By the end of the century, scientists expect average temperatures in the Middle East to rise by 5 degrees Celsius, making parts of the region potentially uninhabitable if action is not taken urgently to tackle the causes of man-made climate change.

In addition to extreme weather, climate-related water scarcity is expected to wipe up to 14 percent off the region’s gross domestic product over the coming 30 years, according to the World Bank.

As about 60 percent of the region’s freshwater originates from external territories, international relations also play a crucial role in water security.

A view of the Shatt al-Arab waterway in Iraq's southern city of Basra, where the Euphrates and Tigris meet. Both rivers originate from Turkiye. (AFP)

The Nile River, for instance, runs through or along the border of 10 other African countries before it reaches Egypt, making Ethiopia’s GERD dam project a point of contention, while Iraq and Syria are fed by the Tigris and Euphrates, which both originate in neighboring Turkiye where large dam projects are also underway.

Jordan and the West Bank, meanwhile, rely on the Jordan River, whose source lies in Israeli territory. Conflicts, rivalries and failures to cooperate on shared water access can lead to pollutants, fish-stock depletion and water shortages further downstream.

In the face of these challenges, several Arab governments are now prioritizing investment in new innovations and technologies to help conserve freshwater sources, recycle and reuse wastewater, and reduce the environmental harm of desalinating seawater.

Israel's Hadera desalination plant plans to pump excess output into the Sea of Galilee, depleted by overuse and threatened by climate change. (AFP)

“Technologies such as membrane bioreactors, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection are being used to treat wastewater to a high standard, making it suitable for reuse in irrigation, industrial and even potable uses,” Fawzi Al-Dibis, manager of sustainability and climate change at WSP Middle East, told Arab News.

Another solution is localized greywater treatment, which allows for the use and reuse of water at source, thereby avoiding additional pumping costs. At present, about 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is being discharged untreated into the environment, according to the UN.

Atmospheric water harvesting is another promising means of overcoming water scarcity by collecting water from the air through various methods, including condensation, dew collection and fog harvesting.

Water is harvested from fog clouds in Morocco using technology developed by the German Water Foundation. (Supplied)

Agriculture accounts for almost 80 percent of the MENA region’s water usage, compared to the 70 percent global average. According to the World Bank, freshwater is being drawn from natural underground aquifers faster than it can be replenished.

To monitor and control this dwindling resource, new smart water management systems, employing artificial intelligence technology, are being developed, Al-Dibis told Arab News.

“These technologies help to analyze data from various sources, such as weather forecasts and sensor networks, to make more accurate predictions of water availability, and to optimize the distribution and use of water resources,” he said.

Agriculture alone accounts for around 80 percent of water usage in MENA region, according to the World Bank. (Supplied)

If farming and irrigation can be made more sustainable, Saad says that the region could also reduce its carbon footprint by growing more of its own crops, thereby cutting its reliance on imported goods.

“The use of smart irrigation and automation in agriculture provides savings in water consumption by optimizing the amount of water needed, in controlled time periods,” he said. The process can be automated using remote wireless sensors that gather live data to make accurate predictions regarding irrigation schedule, location and requirements.

A more holistic approach, implementing “a closed-loop system” in agricultural operations, could reduce the strain on all elements of water supply in the region and ease the existing reliance on transportation, outsourcing, and infrastructure beyond the local ecosystem.

A sample closed-loop water treatment system for crops, designed by e-Gro, a collaborative effort of American floriculture specialists. (Diagram courtesy of e-gro.org) 

Clean technologies and other innovations are also being deployed to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other harmful byproducts during the desalination process. “Fortunately, the science of new materials is offering new solutions to current desalination plants,” Al-Dibis said.

Saad concurs that leveraging new technologies is crucial to reducing the region’s dependence on desalination to meet its water needs. “The Middle East is leading the charge for many of these developments, spurred on by the drier climate and heavy reliance on importation,” he said.

The UAE launched its Net Zero 2050 strategy in 2021, aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in line with its global climate commitments and to address its own environmental challenges.

Engineers monitor control panels at a desalination plant in the Omani port city of Sur, south of the capital Muscat. (AFP)

The UAE’s water table has dropped by about 1 meter a year over the past 30 years, giving the country less than 50 years until all its natural freshwater resources are depleted.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia has rolled out its Vision 2030 initiative, part of which focuses on the optimal use of water resources, reducing consumption and using renewable water, together with its Saudi Green and Middle East Green initiatives.

The Kingdom’s NEOM smart city giga-project taking shape on the Red Sea coast also aims to reduce average water loss from 30 percent to 3 percent by building infrastructure and optioning innovative technology through ENOWA, its energy and water subsidiary.

NEOM says it will have strategically located water reservoirs placed throughout its network and up to 10 pipeline and pumping stations to ensure abundant drinking water supplies. (Supplied)

“This endeavor will provide a blueprint for achieving sustainable water and resource management at scale, and once achieved, a success model the rest of the world may adopt or adapt,” Saad said.

While acknowledging that technology and real-time innovation are essential to reducing water waste, Saad believes the preservation of natural resources can only be achieved through cooperation between governments, businesses and consumers.

“The decisions we make when we source and consume our food and the way we live our day-to-day lives can all have an impact,” he said.

“Everyone can contribute to the overall goal of sustainability by addressing our own day-to-day habits and decisions.”

 


Turkish military’s push into Iraqi territory risks deeper conflict

Turkish military’s push into Iraqi territory risks deeper conflict
Updated 31 January 2023

Turkish military’s push into Iraqi territory risks deeper conflict

Turkish military’s push into Iraqi territory risks deeper conflict
  • Escalation risks further destabilizing a region where foreign powers have intervened with impunity

SARARO, Iraq: Looming over the deserted village of Sararo in northern Iraq, three Turkish military outposts break the skyline, part of an incursion that forced the residents to flee last year after days of shelling.

The outposts are just some of the dozens of new military bases Turkiye has established on Iraqi soil in the past two years as it steps up its decades-long offensive against Kurdish militants sheltered in the remote and rugged region.

“When Turkiye first came to the area, they set up small portable tents, but in the spring, they set up outposts with bricks and cement,” Sararo’s mayor Abdulrahman Hussein Rashid said in December during a visit to the village, where shell casings and shrapnel still litter the ground.

“They have drones and cameras operating 24/7. They know everything that’s going on,” he said, as drones buzzed overhead in the mountainous terrain 5 km from the frontier.

Turkiye’s advances across the increasingly depopulated border of Iraqi Kurdistan attract little global attention compared to its incursions into Syria or the battle against Daesh, but the escalation risks further destabilizing a region where foreign powers have intervened with impunity, analysts say.

Turkiye could become further embroiled if its new Iraqi bases come under sustained attack, while its growing presence may also embolden Iran to expand military action in Iraq against groups it accuses of fomenting unrest at home, Kurdish officials say.

The former secretary general for Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces, Jabar Manda, said Turkiye had 29 outposts in Iraq until 2019 but the number has mushroomed as Ankara tries to stop the Kurdistan Workers’ Party launching attacks on its own territory.

“Year after year the outposts have been increasing after the escalation of battles between Turkish forces and the PKK,” he said, estimating the current number at 87, mostly in a strip of border territory about 150 km long and 30 km deep.

A Kurdish official, who declined to be named, also said Turkiye now had about 80 outposts in Iraq. Another Kurdish official said at least 50 had been built in the last two years and that Turkiye’s presence was becoming more permanent.

Asked to comment on its bases in Iraq, Turkiye’s Defense Ministry said its operations there were in line with article 51 of the UN Charter, which gives member states the right to self defense in the event of attacks.

“Our fight against terrorism in northern Iraq is carried out in coordination and close cooperation with the Iraqi authorities,” the ministry said in a statement, which did not address questions about the figures cited by Kurdish officials.

Turkiye’s presence in northern Iraq, which has long been outside the direct control of the Baghdad government, dates back to the 1990s when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein let Turkish forces advance 5 km into the country to fight the PKK.

Since then, Turkiye has built a significant presence, including one base at Bashiqa 80 km inside Iraq, where it says Turkish troops were part of an international mission to train and equip Iraqi forces to fight Daesh. Turkiye said it worked to avoid civilian casualties through its coordination with Iraqi authorities.

A report published in August by a coalition of NGOs, End Cross-Border Bombing, said at least 98 civilians were killed between 2015 and 2021. The International Crisis Group, which gave a similar civilian death toll, said 1,180 PKK militants were killed between 2015 and 2023.

According to an official with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, the conflict has also emptied at least 800 villages since 2015, when a ceasefire between Turkiye and the PKK broke down, driving thousands of people from their homes.

Beyond the humanitarian impact, Turkiye’s incursion risks widening the conflict by giving carte blanche to regional rival Iran to step up intelligence operations inside Iraq and take its own military action, Kurdish officials say.

Tehran has already fired missiles at bases of Kurdish groups it accuses of involvement in protests against its restrictions on women, displacing hundreds of Iranian Kurds and killing some.

Pro-Iranian militias in Iraq also have a pretext to respond to Turkiye’s presence, analysts say, raising the prospect of escalation between Turkish troops and groups besides the PKK.

Hamdi Malik, a specialist on Iraqi Shiite militias at the Washington Institute, said pro-Iranian groups such as Liwa Ahrar Al-Iraq (Free People of Iraq Brigade) and Ahrar Sinjar (Free People of Sinjar) rebranded themselves last year as the resistance against the Turkish presence.

According to a Washington Institute report, attacks on Turkish military facilities in Iraq increased from an average of 1.5 strikes per month at the start of 2022 to seven in April. If the groups, which are deeply hostile to Washington, step up operations that would also undermine the influence of the United States and its 2,000 troops in Iraq, said Mustafa Gurbuz, a nonresident fellow at the Arab Center Washington.

“Turkiye is underestimating the strength of opposition and the fact that these facilities will become targets in the future and more so as hostilities increase,” said Sajad Jiyad, Baghdad-based analyst for The Century Foundation, a US think tank.

Northern Iraq’s fragmented politics mean that neither the federal government in Baghdad nor the KRG regional authority are strong enough to challenge Turkiye’s presence — or to meet Ankara’s goal of containing the PKK themselves.

The Baghdad government has complained about Ankara’s incursions but has little authority in the mainly Kurdish north, while the region’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party does not have the firepower to challenge the PKK, despite seeing it as a potent and populist rival.

The KDP has historically cooperated with Turkiye but has limited influence over a neighbor which wields far greater military and economic clout.

“We ask all foreign military groups — including the PKK — to not drag the Kurdistan Region into any kind of conflicts or tensions,” KRG spokesman Jotiar Adil said.

“The PKK are the main reason that pushed Turkiye to enter our territories in the Kurdistan Region. Therefore, we think the PKK should leave,” he said. “We are not a side in this long-standing conflict and we have no plans to be on any side.”

Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said the conflict between Turkiye and the PKK was a matter of concern, but less pressing than the threat from Daesh.

Hariam Mahmoud, a leading figure in the Kurdistan Liberation Movement, a civilian opposition group in Iraq influenced by the ideas of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, said no matter how much Turkiye squeezes them they will continue to resist.

“In our opinion, this is an occupation and fighting resistance is a legitimate right,” said Mahmoud, who lives in Garmiyan district south of Sulaimaniya.

Civilians, meanwhile, continue to pay the price. Ramzan Ali, 72, was irrigating his field in Hirure a few km from Sararo in 2021, when he heard a huge blast. The next thing he remembers is being on the ground covered in blood.

He said a Turkish shell had crashed into his property — a regular occurrence when Turkish troops respond to PKK attacks with artillery.