Turkey’s War Against the PKK on the Near Abroad

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 21 August 2018

Ismail Özden (image source)

Turkey killed a senior operative of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the internationally-recognised terrorist organisation and narcotics trafficking entity that has been at war with the Turkish state since 1984, in Iraq last week. Turkey launched a wave of airstrikes against PKK targets in Syria and Iraq in April 2017 and for the last several months Ankara has been widening its campaign against the PKK outside Turkey’s borders, particularly in Iraq, where the PKK is not protected by the United States, as it is in eastern Syria. Having feinted in June toward an attack on the historic PKK headquarters in the Qandil Mountains—a somewhat symbolic target at this stage, with the bulk of the PKK’s leadership and resources in Syria—it appears the Turks have opted for a more targeted approach.

This operation underscores the continuance of U.S.-Turkey relations, and the mutual benefits of the relationship, even in its current damaged state, where both sides have a laundry list of legitimate grievances with the other. If a formula for normalisation can be found, the potential to contain and weaken some of the worst, most destabilising elements in the region, saliently the PKK and the Iranian regime, is within reach.

BACKGROUND

A Turkish airstrike was carried out jointly by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) in the Sinjar (or Shingal) area of Iraq, near the Syrian border, on 15 August. The attack killed five operatives of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), the local department of the PKK. This was confirmed by Khal Ali, a former YBS commander who is now an official with al-Hashd al-Shabi (the Popular Crowd or Popular Mobilisation Units), the Iranian-dominated militia conglomerate that’s an official part of the Iraqi state.

The PKK has held Sinjar since the summer of 2014. As the Islamic State (IS) swept into the area and began murdering and enslaving the Yazidis in a genocidal campaign, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Peshmerga forces fell back, and it was the PKK that broke the siege on Sinjar Mountain. The PKK has used the moral and political credit, local and international, that it gained at this moment to entrench its position. Among the Yazidi population, this has been welcomed to a significant degree.

As part of its effort to dig in, the YBS/PKK began publicly strengthening relations with Iran in the Sinjar-Tal Afar area in early 2017. Inter alia, the YBS appeared alongside the Iraqi Shi’a militia Kataib Hizballah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organisation controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The collaboration between YBS/PKK and Iran saw the YBS receive salaries from Baghdad, where Iran has a lot of influence, and IRGC was allowed  to move its assets into Syria to keep Bashar al-Asad in power. This was part of a years-long effort by Tehran to forge stronger relations between the PKK and the Iraqi government to blunt the influence of Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, seen by the theocratic regime as instruments of Western power. Under U.S. and Turkish pressure, Baghdad’s payments to the YBS were brought to an end in 2017. The YBS/PKK had clashed with the Peshmerga in Sinjar in the first half of 2017, and in September clashed with the Hashd, too.

It should be noted, there are Yazidi formations formally within the Hashd, namely the Ezidkhan Brigade, which has sought to maximise its influence in Sinjar, at the expense of the YBS where need be, and the Lalish Regiment that seems to be tied to an Iranian militia proxy, Liwa al-Husayn. Both Yazidi Hashd formations have been accused of abduction and massacre against civilians from Sunni tribes, specifically the Imteywit and Jahaysh, whom the Yazidis in turn accuse of collaborating in IS’s program of extermination against them. Asked about these accusations, a legal adviser to the Ezidkhan Brigades told Human Rights Watch that the Yazidi militias had been involved in such killings and were fully justified since the tribesmen were “dogs who deserve to die”.

In March 2018, after Turkey had pushed the PKK’s Syrian division, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), out of Efrin city in north-western Syria, Ankara announced that it was moving on Sinjar. This was a bluff, as was the PKK’s ostensible reaction of withdrawing from the area.

WHO WAS KILLED?

The primary YBS figure killed by the Turkish raid was Ismail Özden (Zaki Shingali or Mam Zaki), appointed as the local PKK commander in Sinjar earlier this year. Özden, an ethnic Yazidi, was a Turkish citizen and was on that country’s “red list”, a most-wanted terrorist.

Özden, 66, is reported to have worked in Europe between 1992 and 1996 as part of the PKK’s criminal-terrorist operations on the Continent. Özden was arrested in 1996 in Germany for being a member of the PKK and for violence against ethnic Turks. Özden was released in 1998.

Haval Mazlum, YBS/PKK commander (image source)

Özden’s role in rescuing the Yazidis at the moment they faced annihilation in 2014 meant he was locally popular, and the reflection of this in The New York Times write-up led to considerable anger from the Turkish government and media.

Apparently injured in the strike was Mazlum Ros, better known as Mazlum Shingali or Haval Mazlum (Comrade Mazlum), the overall commander of the YBS. Mazlum’s profile is distinctly murky. As best as can be told, he is a Kurd from Russia, who has been a member of the PKK since 1997. Mazlum spent much of his time in the Zagros Mountains over the next decade, before being transferred to oversee the YBS.[1]

AFTERMATH AND IMPLICATIONS

There were several interesting aspects and developments, within Turkey and without.

The Sinjar attack came a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Al-Abadi is courting Turkish allies like Atheel al-Nujayfi, trying to pull them away from Iran’s closer allies in order that he can form a government. There is also discussion of a new border-crossing that bypasses the YBS and Iran, an advantage for both leaders. And Erdogan wants political cover and legitimacy from Baghdad for anti-PKK actions. The date of the attack—thirty-four years to the day after the first act of the PKK’s terror-insurgency—is also unlikely to be coincidental.

The Turkish operation was named after Bedirhan Mustafa Karakaya, an eleven-month-old baby who was murdered by the PKK, along with his mother, Nurcan Karakaya, the wife of a Turkish soldier, earlier this month. This was a highly emotional crime by the PKK amidst a period of political ascendancy for ultra-nationalism in Turkey. With that as the background, and the nature of the strike—a surgical decapitation operation, with minimal civilian casualties—it was singularly unwise for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Left-wing de facto Kurdish nationalist party that labours under the accusation of being the legal wing of the PKK, to refer in its official statement to Turkey having conducted an “attack against Yazidi society”.

The Unite States provided intelligence that helped Turkey bring off this raid, according to four Turkish diplomats talking to Middle East Eye. What makes this remarkable is that it comes as U.S.-Turkey relations reach the lowest ebb since 1975, with sanctions placed on two Turkish officials over pastor Andrew Brunson’s detention, and additional sanctions, in effect, placed on Turkey, as it struggles with a currency crisis, by means of higher U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminium.

That U.S.-Turkey cooperation can continue at such a moment points to the durability of the military relationship, as does the hope expressed by the Turkish officials—those speaking to MEE and others—on the Minbij question, namely that the progress can continue on that track even as trouble builds in other areas. These military ties can serve as the connective tissue and building blocks for normalisation between the U.S. and Turkey, if and when that time comes.

The Sinjar strike is part of a broader policy that the two NATO allies could unite around to weaken their mutual foes in Iran and the PKK.

Turkey is trying to pursue a course that looks to separate the Yazidis from the YBS, MEE notes, and Ankara’s proposal to find another border-crossing with Iraq is being smiled upon by the U.S., which, though it has not officially got involved in the talks yet, is supportive of any project that helps lessen al-Abadi’s dependence on Iran. There are ten crossings between Iran and Iraq, across which there is vast trade.

Turkey is aware that opening a border point with Iraq that is in the hands of the official governments throws a challenge to the Iranian theocracy’s leverage in Baghdad—and is quite content about it. The officials talking to MEE point out that Turkey can help al-Abadi, in whom the U.S. has invested considerable stock, and the U.S. can help Turkey to remove the YBS: a mutual victory for security and stability.

 

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Notes

[1] UPDATE: There is very little publicly-available information about Mazlum, but Oved Lobel drew my attention to some Russian sources, and kindly translated.

In late 2015, a PKK member identified as Mazlum was interviewed by Rossiya-1 (Russia-1), among the biggest state-owned television channels in the Russian Federation, during a trip to northern Syria. In the article, the PKK fighter was described thus:

Mazlum is the only foreigner in the ranks of the PKK partisans. He’s not even a Kurd. He considers himself Russian by his father. His Mother is from Kyrgyzstan. He says that as a teenager he left Russia for Turkish Kurdistan to join the partisans fighting for socialism. For the first time in 17 years, he is speaking Russian.

Mazlum says that before this, the only time he heard Russian was in the radio intercepts of the Islamic State, where Russian became the third-most important language after Arabic and English. The Rossiya-1 journalist also notes the slightly strange habit his Kurdish interlocuters have of referring to all of these Russian-speaking jihadists, many from the North Caucasus but some from as far afield as Central Asia, as “Chechens”.

While it is interesting to know that this man was in the PKK’s ranks, he appears to be a different individual to the YBS commander Mazlum Ros.

When Mazlum commanded the YBS is itself something of an open question.

The YBS originates rather more organically in Sinjar than, say, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria. In May 2007, the Yazidis formed the Malik al-Tawus (King Peacock) Troop, a local protection militia named after one of the Yazidi divines that was “completely independent” of all other parties. This was just after the stoning to death of Du’a Khalil Aswad, a Yazidi girl who had converted to Islam in order to marry a Sunni boy. This was claimed by the Islamic State as justification for a massacre in late April 2007, and for the bombings near Sinjar in August that year, the largest atrocity of the Iraq war.

Khairy Khedr led the Malik al-Tawus militia. Shaykh Khedr was killed on 22 October 2014 by an IS mortar round as the Yazidis endured a second siege around Sinjar Mountain. There is mention of succession by a Şêx Xelef in some sources, but there is no information available on who he is or when he reigned. With the scattering of the Yazidis and the physical destruction of a significant portion of their population, when they reconstituted themselves the PKK was able to co-opt the local institutions, political and military, under the banner of “democratic autonomy”. There was a Yazidi militia raised in 2014 that aligned with Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Ezidkhan Protection Force (HPE) led by Haydar Shesho, but for various reasons, primarily the circumstances and perceptions surrounding the genocide, pro-KDP forces have struggled to gain traction.

It was in this period that Mazlum took control. There are reports of Mazlum being at the head of the YBS by October 2015, and he was certainly in place by mid-2016.

As to who Mazlum is, it does seem he is Kurdish—contrary to some claims that he is Yazidi—and was born in fallen Soviet Union, specifically in the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. Another report, though mistakenly referring to him as “Mazlum Rok”, confirms that he is Armenian by birth, as does a report in English for Bas News, owned by Masrur Barzani, President Masud’s son, who also holds Kurdistan 24 (Masud’s nephew, Nechirvan, oversees Rudaw).

 

Post has been updated

2 thoughts on “Turkey’s War Against the PKK on the Near Abroad

  1. Matthew Barber

    Some helpful analysis here, but also a few points I would critique:

    1) It is important to understand the conflict between Turkey and the PKK as one of war, and war involves violence. That doesn’t mean that violence against non-military targets is not terrorism; we can condemn such acts of violence while maintaining balance regarding the fact that the same forms of violence (against civilians) are used by the state. Always taking the position that “the PKK are terrorists” without acknowledging the political relationships between Turkey and the particular entities who include the PKK on their terror lists, and drawing attention to the states/UN that do not include the PKK on their terror lists, could contribute to a degree of bias.

    2) It feels like a pro-Turkey, partisan position to judge the HDP for their rejection of Turkey’s attack as “an attack on Yazidi society.” It certainly was an attack on Yazidi society. Contrary to this claim here, Yazidi civilians were killed in the attack. Harbo Tel Ezeri was part of the local Self-Administrative Council, a leadership and governance council that has been functioning in Sinjar for several years and which also includes representatives from several political parties that are not PKK affiliates. Kyle can be forgiven for this claim, as the public sources on which this article is based have not provided much on the identities of those killed; however, even if those killed were solely military members of the YBŞ (which several reportedly were), these men are local Yazidis who lost everything in the Genocide and who joined the YBŞ in order to defend their homeland and families. They have no history with the PKK, likely never traveled to Turkey in their entire lives, and are not preoccupied with geopolitics and regional competitions. These men were not terrorists; they were local Yazidis. To speak as though this attack had some legitimacy because it was conducted against targets that are supposedly “military” is simply unacceptable. The YBŞ fighters provide security in Sinjar and live locally with their families. In Sinjar, one will encounter and interact with them just as one would with local police, and the YBŞ has also functioned in the absence of police. These are the people the humanitarian community has provided aid and support with the aim of recovery; now they are being bombed. It’s easy to speak about it in a detached and analytical way when we don’t see their faces, but I guarantee that these were simply ordinary local men who not only fought IS for years but whose friends and relatives all live in the nearby community.

    It is also important to remember that this assassination was conducted against people who had just left the Kocho Massacre memorial, where hundreds of women were gathered to weep and mourn their dead husbands and sons. The Turkish attack was clearly traumatic for the community and these women later gathered in Snune to protest the killing. So on many levels, this was an attack on Yazidi society.

    3) According to this article, Özden’s arrest was 22 years ago and his release was 20 years ago. Don’t you think it is worth raising the question as to why he was assassinated in Sinjar in 2018? And if Baghdad really wants to change the system of leadership in Sinjar, and if the US was willing to provide Turkey with intel (as a Turkish diplomat has claimed was the case), would it not be possible for representatives from either (or both) governments, that is from Iraq and the US, to engage locally on the ground, rather than having Turkey start bombing the very people we used to support? There is a very fluid boundary between the YPG and the YBŞ, with the former regularly supporting the latter. The YPG even had bases in Sinjar through which it collaborated with the YBŞ in the fight against IS. So we support an entity on one side of the border while allowing and/or supporting Turkey’s attacks against the same entity on the other side of the border?

    For four years now, Yazidis have begged the US to work with Baghdad to create real administration and security in Sinjar. Baghdad and the US could form a joint team that would work on the ground in Sinjar to create stability through cohesive governance structures and security apparatuses. This should be an important step for the post-Genocide recover of the Yazidis, and they have asked for it incessantly but to no avail. Wouldn’t this approach be preferable to bombing?

    (Obviously here I’m raising a number of points that were not addressed by the article; the article did not support this bombing. But the question of why it was necessary to kill Özden at this point leads to these other considerations.)

    4) The Iran-focused portions of this article leave me perplexed. Not everything is about Iran. Iran is a major actor that endeavors to extend influence wherever it can. We know that it has tremendous influence in Baghdad and over the Hashd al-Sha’bi forces who were significant in winning the war against IS. So is it really all that strange that the YBS would make relations with other entities whom it viewed as being sources of potential support? And photo-ops need to be distinguished from other forms of affiliation; funding (other than PKK support) for the YBŞ came from the Hashd Body’s umbrella organization in Baghdad which is considered an official government institution there. The YBŞ is an under-supported force that had reached out to the US for support and which could have been a close partner with the US, as the YPG have been in Syria, but which was not to be the case in Sinjar specifically because the US felt a working obligation to the KDP who hated the YBŞ for their presence in Sinjar. The apparent insinuation here that the YBŞ had anything relevant to do with Iran’s larger objective of keeping Bashar al-Asad in power in Syria strikes me as somewhat odd.

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    1. KyleWOrton Post author

      I think that mostly stands alone, Matt, and adds some useful context. I shall update on the civilian casualties; as you noted that’s been unclear in the open source coverage. I’d add three points just as clarification.

      On the remarks by HDP, I didn’t mean they were “unwise” from my subjective point-of-view. I meant in the context of Turkish politics at the moment, they were deleterious to HDP’s own position.

      The other two points arise out of simply a difference of perspective, namely local as against geopolitical.

      My own view is that extremist groups that embed themselves in local populations—even where they bring objective benefits like security and services—do not thereby gain immunity from the states they threaten. The analogy I would give is al-Qaeda in northern Syria: it can legitimately claim to have been the sole protector against the Asad regime for any number of communities and to be mostly Syrian, that is to say organically tied to the local population. That makes it more of a problem, not less, in my view.

      Finally on Iran, it happens to be a focus of mine—and should, I believe, be a focus of Western policy in the region—so I will tend to dwell on Iran angles to situations, perhaps disproportionately (as you suggest is the case here).

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