Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said in no uncertain terms that his government would consider deploying its Peshmerga soldiers against members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who have refused to leave Iraq’s northern Sinjar region.
The younger Barzani – Uncle Masoud Barzani is the president of the KRG – told the outlet Al Monitor that his government sees military force as a viable option to remove the U.S.-designated Marxist terrorist group from Sinjar, where they have been stationed since 2014, when the Islamic State took over the region and commenced a genocide of its Yazidi minority. “Under the present circumstances, the presence of PKK forces in Sinjar will only add to instability in the area and nothing more,” he argued. “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.”
“If matters come to a head and Ankara [Turkey] and Baghdad and other players get drawn in,” he said of the PKK occupation, “we too, as the KRG, are players and hold certain cards in our hands. Having said that, I don’t think it would be in anybody’s interest to reach that point.” The Al Monitor interviewer then asked what these cards were:
Al-Monitor: Are you suggesting that you might resort to military force in order push the PKK out of Sinjar?
Barzani: Yes, I am.
Barzani did thank “the Rojava forces” – the Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), whom the KRG has begrudgingly allowed into Iraq only in cases of emergency such as the Islamic State Sinjar invasion– for their contributions to eradicating the jihadists from the area. The YPG often cooperates with the PKK, enough that the government of Turkey recognizes them to be one in the same, though the YPG also cooperates with the U.S. Air Force, while Washington recognizes the PKK as a terrorist entity. Barzani’s KRG also works closely with the United States, and he noted that Erbil, the KRG capital, has “been engaging with both Baghdad and Washington on this issue.” He kept his criticism limited to the PKK:
The PKK presence is preventing people from returning to their homes. They are hesitating to return for fear of renewed conflict, out of concern as to what uncertain future awaits them and not because, as some allege, that we are the ones stopping them from reclaiming their lives, their homes. We share their concerns, and this is why we strongly believe that the PKK must leave Sinjar.
This is far from the first time the KRG has demanded the PKK leave Iraq, though it appears to be the first threat to use official military action to remove the fellow Kurdish group. Earlier this month, Barzani issued a statement calling the enduring PKK presence in the area “not acceptable”: “Our Syrian-Kurdish brothers helped us regarding Sinjar and we thanked them but the PKK should not stay there. They are the source of destabilization in the region.”
Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, demanded the PKK leave in July 2015, calling the group “arrogant” for refusing peace talks with the Turkish government, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched an extensive campaign to remove all PKK influence from politics, including mass arrests of legislators suspected of PKK ties.
“The Turkish government has taken positive steps, and has adopted a positive attitude for a peaceful resolution; however, we have seen that some sides (the PKK) has taken [sic] it as a matter of pride and did not utilize these opportunities,” Masoud Barzani said at the time.
A month later, President Barzani demanded the PKK “withdraw its fighters from the Kurdish region so to ensure the civilians of Kurdistan do not become victim of that fighting and conflict,” a demand that has yet to be heeded.
The Turkish government, which enjoys positive relations with the KRG despite its crackdown on Kurdish separatists within its own borders, has officially demanded the PKK leave Sinjar. The United States has also weighed in on the KRG’s side of the dispute.
“We continue to believe that the PKK, which is a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, should have no role in Sinjar, and we regard their presence there as a major obstacle to a reconciliation and to the return of internally displaced people,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in November. “We urge all groups, including the KRG, to facilitate political reconciliation so that these internally displaced people can return and the traumatized communities in that region can rebuild.”
The Kurdish outlet Rudaw estimated at the time that around 1,000 of the PKK’s 5,000 members in Iraq are stationed in Sinjar.
“The PKK elements won’t leave Sinjar,” PKK senior member Agid Kalary said in November, responding to an official expulsion notice from the Iraqi Nineveh council, calling that notice “in the interest of Daesh (ISIS).”
The tensions between the KRG and PKK could represent an impediment to the struggle against the Islamic State, as both PKK terrorists and the Kurdish Peshmerga have been among the most successful militias on the ground attacking ISIS in Iraq. In Sinjar, the KRG appears to be struggling with dissent from Yazidis, who say the PKK saved them from certain death when the Peshmerga withdrew from the region.
“After the Yezidis were betrayed by the KRG on August 03, 2014, the Yezidis cannot ‘Trust’ the KRG,” Mirza Ismail, chairman of the Yezidi Human Rights Organization International, told Breitbart News in April. “The KRG fled without any fighting against ISIS; refused to give Yezidis any weapons and in fact most of the Kurds in Shingal [Sinjar] … joined up with ISIS and killed, raped and abducted their Yezidi neighbors.”
“While 13 thousand peshmergas fled Sinjar, PKK came to our help here. They liberated our lands with the blood of martyrs and nobody can tell them to leave now,” Shingal Yazidi Women’s Assembly Spokesperson Naem Ilyas said of the KRG in May.
Some Yazidis claim it is the KRG, not the PKK, that is preventing them from returning to Sinjar, though KRG representatives say they have kept civilians out of some areas of Sinjar City due to the dangerously collapsed infrastructure and lack of basic services, like heat and electricity, in the cold Iraqi winter. The Islamic State also still controls Mosul and some surrounding villages, persisting in threatening a return to Sinjar.
The PKK is not universally appreciated by non-KRG elements in Sinjar. While there, Christians say the PKK occupied their villages and invaded the home of the leader of an anti-ISIS Christian militia. Emmanuel Khoshaba Youkhana, the leader of the Dwekh Nawsha Christian militia, accused the PKK of using Christians as “human shields.”
Christians, particularly those displaced from northern Mosul city, have been welcomed and aided by Erbil, where a large Christmas celebration occurred during the weekend.