Turkey threatens to clear terrorist group from Iraq’s Sinjar mountains

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to clear terrorists from northern Iraq’s Sinjar mountains if Baghdad does not act on his warning that the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has set up a headquarters there.
Speaking on Monday, the president said: “We have told the central (Iraqi) government that the PKK is establishing a new headquarters in Sinjar.
“If you can deal with it, you handle it. But if you cannot, we will suddenly enter Sinjar one night and clear this region of terrorists.”
Erdogan said he told Baghdad to deal with PKK camps and warned Sinjar may become a stronghold for the group. “If we are friends, you will make it easy for us,” he said.
The PKK have waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state and are considered a terrorist organization by Ankara, Europe and the US.
For the past few months, Turkish and Iraqi officials have engaged in high-level political and military talks to discuss potential joint action against the PKK in Sinjar along the Iraqi-Syrian border.
Ankara has justified its previous operations against PKK hideouts in Iraq using Article 51 of the United Nations Charter on a country’s right to self-defense against armed attack.
Sinjar is strategically important because it unites the Kurdish areas in Syria to Iraq. The Syrian town of Afrin was captured by Turkish troops on Sunday in what it called Operation Olive Branch.
Erdogan said Turkish forces and allied Syrian forces would press eastwards to Kobani, Manbij and Sinjar.
Some analysts interpreted Erdogan’s threat against Sinjar as a means of putting pressure on Washington, which partnered with Syrian Kurdish fighters against Daesh. Thousands have fled Afrin and the US State Department has declared itself “deeply concerned” about the humanitarian situation there.
Sinjar, 100 km west of Mosul, is one of the disputed areas claimed by both the Baghdad central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Although Baghdad fiercely opposes it, Kurds would like to incorporate this region into their autonomous territories.
Last October, a month after Iraqi Kurds voted for independence from Baghdad in a referendum, Iraqi central government forces took Sinjar after Kurdish forces pulled out. The region had been captured from Daesh by Kurdish troops in 2015.
The mountainous heartland of Sinjar is the ancestral land of Kurdish-speaking Yazidis. In 2014, thousands of Yazidis were slaughtered and others held as sex slaves by Daesh, focusing international concern on the plight of this minority group.
The UN concluded that Daesh had committed genocide against the Yazidis, many of whom volunteered to fight against the extremist group in the ranks of the PKK.
Hashed Al-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary force mostly made up of Iranian-trained Shiite militias, also had Yazidis in its ranks. Any Turkish attack on Sinjar would risk being seen also as an attack against Yazidis.
“While Turkey could conduct an operation against the PKK in Sinjar based on Article 51 of the UN Charter, acting with the direct or silent approval of Bagdad and Irbil would invalidate any question on legality,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Arab News.
Iran’s approval would also be key for such an operation not only because of the leverage that Tehran has over Baghdad, but also because of Hashed Al-Shaabi’s presence around Sinjar, he said.
“As Sinjar was one of the scenes of atrocities by Daesh in 2014, it is natural that the international community will be exceedingly sensitive about civilian casualties and the PKK can be expected to make a hybrid response to Turkey, not only through terrorist attacks but also media and social media campaigns,” Unluhisarcikli said.
According to Barin Kayaoglu, an assistant professor of world history at the American University of Iraq, a Sinjar operation was more likely after Afrin.
“It’s not clear how the federal government of Iraq or the KRG will respond to the Turkish government’s statement regarding Sinjar. But given the recent results of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, it would be prudent to take Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his administration at their word,” he told Arab News.
Should a Turkish operation in Sinjar proceed, it would need some co-ordination with Baghdad and Irbil, if not a joint operation with both, Kayaoglu said.
“(Co-ordination was) less likely with the KRG,” he said. “There’s much anger in the Kurdistan region of Iraq toward Turkey because of Olive Branch.”

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