The president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Nechirvan Barzani, told an audience Tuesday that the Marxist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was responsible for Turkish violence against Kurds in Syria, encouraging Kurds to “criticize ourselves” as much as outsiders.
Barzani, the KRG’s prime minister under the presidency of his predecessor and uncle Masoud Barzani, made the remarks at a Middle East Research Institute speaking engagement in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil, according to the Kurdish outlet Rudaw. He told the audience that “any Kurd who sees what is happening in Syria and what Kurds are suffering there, is sad and want things to happen in a different way,” but that Turkey had been transparent about its concerns with the PKK and the Syrian Kurdish government had not done enough to distance themselves from the group.
The United States has designated the PKK a foreign terrorist organization.
Turkey invaded Syria in October, calling the attack “Operation Peace Spring,” in an effort to destroy what it claims are PKK elements in Syrian Kurdistan, or Rojava. “Operation Peace Spring” consists of eradicating the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-allied militia responsible for defeating the Islamic State in its “capital” of Raqqa, from Rojava and replacing the indigenous Kurds of the region with mostly Arab Syrian refugees.
The SDF leadership, which is largely Kurdish, has called the plan “ethnic cleansing.”
Turkey is undertaking “Operation Peace Spring” alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a coalition of militias formed against dictator Bashar al-Assad that contains some jihadist elements.
The SDF has published videos of jihadists desecrating the bodies of Kurdish fighters and shouting “Allah Akbar!” Turkish allied jihadis have also attacked Christian communities developing in Rojava in the aftermath of ISIS attacks on their territories in Iraq.
“Turkey’s problem in the beginning was not Kurds in Syria, it was the PKK. They were clear in saying one thing: ‘we cannot bear seeing the flag of the PKK on our borders with Syria,’” Barzani said of the situation. “We have always tried to make our friends in Syria understand that [Turkey’s concerns] are a grave danger.”
Barzani reportedly blamed the violence currently engulfing Rojava on the PKK trying to manipulate the goodwill that Syrian Kurdish forces had gained internationally in their fight with ISIS to try to “obtain legitimacy.”
“The biggest problem was that the PKK tried to obtain its legitimacy at the expense of Syrian Kurds. What Kurds eventually suffered came as a result of the wrong policy they followed,” he explained. He did not elaborate on how PKK leaders tried to use the SDF or other Kurdish forces to do so.
Barzani also encouraged Kurds to look within and not merely accuse others of creating the problems in their community.
“When something happens, we are used to immediately criticizing others. But we never criticize ourselves and see what factors triggered the issues to happen. If we see these mistakes in the first place, we can take future steps with caution,” he said.
He concluded that the Iraqi Kurdish administration would not involve itself in the growing Syrian-Turkish war.
“Our responsibility to carry is the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. We will not meddle in any country’s affairs, neither Syria, nor Iran or Turkey,” he asserted.
That may not continue to be possible as Turkey has begun to strike alleged PKK targets within Iraqi Kurdistan. On Monday, multiple reports confirmed airstrikes on a Yazidi militia in Sinjar, the religious minority’s ancestral home. The Yazidis developed a closer relationship with the PKK following the Islamic State genocide against their people in 2014. The KRG’s army, the Peshmerga, reportedly withdrew from Sinjar when ISIS invaded; the PKK remained in the trenches and helped fight the jihadists off. Since then, the PKK has remained active in the area, helping arm and train Yazidi fighters to prevent another ISIS invasion.
It remains a point of contention among both communities whether Yazidis are ethnic Kurds or a separate people.
The KRG has consistently refused to have a relationship with the PKK. Former president Masoud Barzani reportedly refused to meet the imprisoned head of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, on two occasions despite Turkey offering the opportunity. In 2015, when Turkey conducted similar airstrikes on PKK targets within KRG territory, the elder Barzani refused to condemn them, instead calling the PKK “arrogant” and applauding Turkey for attempting “positive steps” towards peace before resorting to airstrikes.
A year later, then-Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani threatened to send the Peshmerga to attack and eradicate the PKK within KRG territory.
“Under the present circumstances, the presence of PKK forces in Sinjar will only add to instability in the area and nothing more,” he said. “The real problem lies within the mentality and the behavior of the PKK. The local Yazidi population does not want the PKK to remain. People want stability.”
Masoud Barzani referred to other Syrian Kurdish entities as indistinguishable from the PKK on at least one occasion, parroting the Turkish government’s talking points.
“Any support to the PYD means support for the PKK. They are exactly one and the same thing,” he said in 2016. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the political arm of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ). The YPG make up a significant portion of the SDF.
Despite these tensions, Nechirvan Barzani said on Tuesday that he had maintained communication with Mazloum Abdi, the head of the SDF. He claimed to have advised Abdi to begin dialogue with dictator Bashar al-Assad and claimed Abdi called the move “the right thing.”
Both the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish leaderships have expressed a preference for working with the United States. President Donald Trump claimed to have withdrawn U.S. forces from Rojava last month, triggering a global firestorm from leftists who accused the United States of “betraying” the Kurds.
As of Wednesday, President Trump has approved an expanded U.S. military mission to defend oil fields in eastern Syria.
The U.S. military is only legally allowed to engage in operations against al-Qaeda and its allies and offshoots as per the 2001 congressional Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) currently in vigor. The Islamic State is a rebranded group formerly known as “al-Qaeda in Iraq.”