Futuristic Readings No.6 -2020
The Impact of Regional Polarizations on Iraq and the Kurdistan Region;
Turkish intervention, the Iran-China agreement
– Futuristic Readings No.6
– Researchers: Dr. Yousif Goran, Dr. Omed Rafiq Fatah, Dr. Abid Khalid Rasul, Dr. Hardi Mahdi Mika
– Centre for Future Studies – Sulaimani – Iraqi Kurdistan Region
– July 2020
Section One: Kurdistan Region and Turkish war against PKK
Section Two: Iraq and the Kurdistan Region in the 25-year agreement draft between Iran and China
In recent years, Iraq and Kurdistan Region have become entangled in many internal and external problems including economic problems, financial crises, and Covid-19. These matters often became the causal factor for regional conflicts and events, especially with Iraq being at the heart of the bipolar war of hegemony in the region between Turkey and Iran. Whenever these states achieve their aims, they can either have a direct and indirect impact on the political, military, security and economic spheres of Iraq and Kurdistan Region.
The sixth issue of Ranan takes into account this new regional polarisation. It examines the Turkish war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and the 25-year Chinese-Iranian agreement to understand the implications in which the two issues will likely have for Iraq and Kurdistan Region
Section One: Kurdistan Region and Turkish war against PKK
Turkey’s new airstrikes and ground offensive against PKK began in June 2020 and is described as a new and different stage in the protracted conflict between the two sides, a conflict that has lasted 38 years. The new phase of the conflict began at the time when PKK used the territory of Kurdistan Region as a base to launch its activities against the Turkish state.
While at face value the war is internal Turkish conflict between two long-standing rivals, the expansion of the battlefield by the two sides to include the territory of Kurdistan Region which threatens the security of the Kurdistan Region. This thread has become more pressing now that the Turkish government has extended its offensive in Kurdistan Region, an area that has for decades been perceived as a safe Iraqi region. The offensive only adds to the ongoing already prevalent footprint of regional and international conflicts in Kurdistan Region.
– The Conflict between Turkey and PKK: Geography and History
Following the 1980 military coup, all civilian and humanitarian organisations in Turkey were outlawed. The ban and subsequent crackdown disproportionately impacted Kurdish and Marxist political parties, organisations and personalities. This led to some, including PKK, to take up refuge outside of Turkey.
While outside of Turkey, both Kurdish and Marxist parties were engaged in discussions on their respective priorities for beginning their internal and external political and military struggles against the Turkish state. PKK for its part believed that it was essential to establish a foothold externally as this would become an aid for it to strengthen the struggle within Turkey. This strategy led some of the leading members of the PKK to take up temporary residence in Syria and later in Lebanon.
The Iraqi-Iranian war (1980) weakened Baghdad’s grip over the remote Iraqi northern-mountainous regions that bordered Turkey and Iran. As a result, these territories initially became advantageous political bases for the Kurdish political parties in Iran and Iraq and later for their counterparts in Turkey. Hence, in 1982, the PKK established their military bases in the Turkish mountainous border regions. They established their first military base in the triangle border where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey meet.
The PKK did not engage in armed clashes with Turkey until 1984 after the Turkish government launched its first offensive against the PKK’s strongholds and headquarters inside Iraqi’s Kurdish regions. The attack was the result of its 1983 security agreement with Iraq. Since then, the Kurdish territories of Iraq have become a significant staging ground in the war between the Turkish government and PKK.
After the establishment of a Kurdish government in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, the troubles between Kurdish political parties and their respective states in Turkey (PKK) and Iran (Komala and the Democratic party) spelt security concerns and problems for the fledgling Iraqi Kurdish administration. These problems were more potent as the leadership of the Kurdish administration in Iraq maintained strong ties to the Kurdish leaders in Turkey and Iran. However, due to their new-found international obligations and circumstance after 1991, the Kurdish leaders were no longer able to support the respective struggles of these parties in their states. Instead, the Kurdish government requested that these political parties withdraw from Iraqi-Kurdistan’s border regions and in doing so, support the new Kurdish self-governance in Iraq. While the Kurdish political parties in Iran responded positively to the request and withdrew from the territories, the PKK rejected the calls of the Kurdish administration in Iraq leading to the outbreak of an intra-Kurdish war between the PKK and the forces of Iraqi Kurdistan in the autumn of 1992. The war resulted in the withdrawal of the PKK’s leaders and fighters from Turkey to their new stronghold of the Qandil Mountains inside Iraqi Kurdistan. The former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani initiated the first talks between the PKK and Turkey. However, the talks were short-lived and collapsed following the death of former Turkish President Turgut Ozal in the spring of 1993. With little hope of the two sides reaching an agreement Iraqi Kurdistan once again became a battleground for the Turkey-PKK war.
Although the capture and arrest of the leader of the PKK Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 brought with it a 15-year unilateral cessation to hostilities, since 2015 a new and radically different phase of the war began, which once again saw the Kurdistan Region as a central battleground.
– A New Stage in an Old War: 2015 – 2020
Following 15 years of discreet dialogue between Turkey and the PKK, hostilities re-erupted in 2015. However, the character of war in the phase was markedly different than that which took place in the last 15 years.
Due to the PKK’s long-term ceasefire with Turkey, the majority of its forces has withdrawn from Turkey. Furthermore, for several reasons, the party had lost its positions in the Turkish-Iranian and the Armenian-Turkish border regions. Old age and retirement also meant the PKK lost a handful of its more influential leaders and talented members and their new members were militarily inexperienced due to the lack of conflict and the continuation of the ceasefire.
For its part, over the last 15 years, Turkey has experienced significant developments in its armament and military capabilities. New military aerial technology has allowed Turkey to take significant strides in its ability to identify and target PKK positions. In this regard, the Turkish government has made advancement in the manufacture of Aerial Unmanned Vehicles (AUV), which has been hugely impactful in the new phase of its war against the PKK. In 2016, the Turkish government used their Bayrakter (TB2) AUV against PKK in Hakkari province. The Turkish AUV’s have significantly weakened the PKK’s ability to penetrate deep into Turkish territory. Sources indicate that the Turkish AUV’s have to date killed approximately 400 PKK fighters.
Furthermore, Erdogan-era Turkey is engaged in a different political doctrine than pre-Erdogan Turkey. Before Erdogan, a principle of non-military interference in the affairs of other states guided the Turkish government’s foreign policy. However, with troops currently stationed in Syria, Somalia, Kurdistan Region and Libya the Erdogan government’s current foreign policy is characterised by its willingness to interfere in the affairs of foreign states. Hence, the Turkish government has had no problem in engaging in its incursions in Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Turkish TB2 aircraft have played a significant role in Turkey’s foreign battles, especially in Syria’s Afrin, Ras al-Ain and Idlib. Furthermore, they have been used to target the PKK’s positions and civilian leaders within the Kurdistan Region. Currently, the Turkish government has allocated four military airports in Turkey’s Kurdish areas (Batman Sharnakh and Hakkari) for the stationing and launching of the TB2’s against PKK targets in the Kurdistan Region.
– The June 2020 Offensives:
In June 2020, the Turkish government initiated a significant territorial incursion into Kurdistan Region through the launching of a robust aerial offensive supported by elite Turkish infantry units and regular infantry. While in previous years the Turkish government has launched other incursions and invasions into Kurdistan Region and established informal bases in Mosul and Duhok governorates. The character of the current offensive is different from the previous ones. It appears to be an attempt by Turkey to establish a security belt in Kurdistan Region similar to that which it has installed in Rojava. It is noteworthy that Turkey has sought to establish such a buffer zone for multiple years. What is more, the scale of the offensive and the depth of Turkey’s incursion could not have been achieved without a tacit nod from the Iraqi Federal Government. Turkey’s offensive may have been motivated by the Turkish government’s desire to appear as a significant regional player, especially after its successes in Syria and Libya.
The territory of the Turkish offensive stretches from where the borders of Iraq, Syria and Turkey meet to the where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey meet, which comprises 300 kilometres of mountainous terrain (formerly known as the Brussels Line). The primary declared objective of the Turkish government is to neutralise the PKK’s bases.
However, it is also possible that one of Turkey’s undeclared goals may be to establish a permanent presence in the territory. In this case, Kurdistan Region is confronted by the reality that it will be forced to bear the brunt of the crossfire in the war between PKK and Turkey, which may destroy hundreds of border villages and the internal displacement of thousands. Furthermore, the new reality will likely result in Kurdistan region losing its title as a regional haven, impacting negatively regional security and the international war against the Islamic State.
– Future perspectives
The roots of the Turkey-PKK conflict are to be found in political culture, specifically in the democratic demands of the Kurds of Turkey, a fact demonstrated after the AKP party took the power in Turkey in 2001. In 2005, Ankara took significant steps to solve the Kurdish issue in Turkey, resulting in a retraction of the Turkey-PKK conflict. Therefore, the main arena for this conflict should be the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Turkey itself. Kurdistan Region and its residents should not become victims of the conflict.
Given the increasing possibility that the Turkish-PKK war will be fought in the territory of the Kurdistan Region, we must anticipate the following scenarios:
- The continuation of this protracted conflict, which has witnessed 40 separate offensives to date: The ultimate resolution of this war will undoubtedly leave the Kurdistan Region as the primary victim. The Kurdish government’s military capabilities are such that they are unable to confront either party.
- Turkey’s successes in occupying the region and establishing a security belt at a depth of 20-40 km, makes this scenario the most likely. This is despite the logistical problems associated with the Turkish army’s presence in the mountainous regions, if the local, Iraqi and regional conditions are suitable, it is highly likely that Turkey will achieve its objective. However, there are several counterweights to this scenario; first, the Turkish government faces mounting internal and external challenges that may alter its foreign policy, second, the financial and logistical cost of continued Turkish occupation of the mountainous regions of the Kurdistan Region will become a thorn in the Turkish side, and third, the lack of new areas outside of the Kurdistan Region for the Turkish-PKK war. Also, the topography of the region, especially with the advent of winter, may make it difficult for Turkey to maintain their occupation of the area.
- Whether publicly or privately the two sides instigate a ceasefire and re-enter negotiations as happened in the Ozal and early Erdogan period. It must be noted that until Erdogan’s AKP maintain their alliance with the Turkish Nationalist Party (MHP), such steps may be challenging to take. However, if the coalition is dissolved or if Erdogan’s AKP enters into a new alliance with an opposition party like the CHP, which is expected to increase its vote share in the next national elections, this scenario may be more likely.
- If it has the help of the Iraqi Federal Government and the international coalition forces, Tukey may succeed in building a security belt between itself and the Kurdistan Region. However, Turkey’s primary goal of creating a security buffer by occupying a significant portion of the Kurdistan Region’s territory may already have been met.
The only option for the Kurdistan Region may be to request the deployment of the Iraqi army and international forces to its border regions with Turkey due to its inability to confront Turkish incursions into its territory and its inability to prevent PKK from launching attacks into Turkey. While a similar option was practised in Syria’s Rojava and Idlib intermittently, it does not appear to have succeeded in bringing peace and security to the area.
Regarding regional and international agreements, in which the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Iraqi Federal Government and the international coalition play a key role, the possibility of such an arrangement faces three clear obstacles. First, the current complex nature of regional relations; Second, the weakened will of the international community to interfere in the internal Middle Eastern affairs; And third, the weak state of the Iraqi army. Furthermore, to weaken the Kurdistan Regions international influence, neighbouring states may conspire together by working to grant an increased role to Iraqi federal forces in protecting the Kurdistan Regions borders.
Section Two: Iraq and the Kurdistan Region in the 25-year agreement draft between Iran and China:
The Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) appear to be working on a long-term agreement (25 years) that will allow for bilateral ties in the fields of politics, military, economics, industry, communication technology and intelligence. The draft agreement also covers the building of a highway between the two countries that also reaches other regional states, which will facilitate these ties.
If the draft agreement is signed and implemented, it will also impact Iraq and Kurdistan Region in numerous sensitive areas, including security, intelligence, politics, and economies. What is more, both Iraq and Kurdistan Region have been noted in the draft agreement as part of the route for new highway.
– The Draft Agreement: History, Contents and Future:
According to leaked documents, the draft agreement is titled “the Comprehensive 25 years Cooperation Program between Iran and PRC” and was submitted in 2020 by the “General Secretariat of the Comprehensive Strategic Bilateral Mechanism Between Iran and PRC”. To date, only the Persian language version of the draft agreement has been seen. The draft is to be presented to the members of the parliament in both countries for the ratification in due course.
The agreement consists of 18 pages: a preamble, nine articles, and three annexes. The topics covered include bilateral political objectives, two-way trade routes, opening a regional and international road, trade development, extending rail to the broader region, advancing and improving the delivery of energy to the region, improving military and security ties between the two nations and Chinese investment in five Iranian ports and islands.
The agreement dates back to the 2016 visit of the Chinese President to Iran as referenced in the preamble of the leaked copy of the draft agreement. According to the document’s preamble, the deal is to detail the regulations governing the implementation of the agreed shared principles. Article six of an earlier bilateral agreement titled “Achieving China and Iran’s Joint Strategy” which was circulated in 2016 before the visit of the Chinese President to Iran details these regulations. (The agreement can be read on the website of the Centre for Future Studies: https://www.centerfs.org/). The agreement covered the trade, economics, politics, culture, security and military fields and identified general, internal and sector-specific mechanisms to facilitate their cooperation.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding many aspects of the agreement, including when it will be put to lawmakers, to date only a handful of Iranian officials (such as Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Iranian vice President Isaac Jahangiri) support and champion the agreement. However, within Iran and its conservative circles, such as former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad, and dozens of others, including Iranian reformists, there is discontent at the agreement. Iran’s opposition forces, such as the Mujahadin and the monarchists, describe the agreement as “selling Iran”. Since initial talks began on the agreement, these groups have launched coordinated campaigns against the agreement. They argue that it is one-sided as Iran cannot guarantee that PRC would abide by the terms of the agreement. Also that that it only provides a lifeline for Iran’s out of touch ruling elite. Legally the success of the agreement is dependent on two elements:
- The People’s Republic of China: It is unlikely that the PRC would sacrifice its interests with the Gulf states and Iraq for an agreement in which the value of the exchange does not exceed $400 billion.
It is also noteworthy that while Iran may perceive the PRC as an ally, the latter has consistently voted at the United Nations Security Council in support of US sanctions on Iran. Past events also haunt the relationship between the two states, for example, during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s the PRC sold arms to Iran, documents from the time indicate that during the same conflict the PRC sold significantly more weapons to the Iraqi government.
Moreover, the PRC has a track record in drawing up bilateral agreements of this nature with other regional states. For example, the PRC entered into strategic agreements with Iraq in 1997, 2007, 2015 and 2018. However, the strategic circumstances at the time did not allow the implementation of these agreements.
- The Leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran: It is evident that the ultimate decision in general policy direction and the long-term international politics of Iran is in the hands of its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If he agrees with the draft agreement, there is no doubt that the agreement will also pass its legal hurdle in the majority conservative Iranian parliament without consideration for political and public objections.
In so doing, Iran would be repeating the similar experience of the Iraqi government of 1997-1998. During this period, the Iraqi government faced international pressure and an economic embargo. To escape and to pressure the United States to loosen its economic sanctions and muzzle the international community, the Iraqi government looked to establish a similar agreement with the PRC. However, the agreement did not only fail to rescue Saddam Hussein, the leader of the former Iraqi regime, from his ultimate fate, but the PRC also stood by and watched the government collapse five years later (2003) without any objections or condemnations targeted at the United States.
Nevertheless, no matter how likely the implementation of the agreement, it also remains increasingly dependent on the outcome of the US presidential elections and any policy direction change from the US concerning Iranian sanctions.
– Sensitive Articles of the Draft Agreement for Iraq and Kurdistan Region:
Here, the following questions arise: As critical parts of Iranian political, military, and economic strategy, what status or impact will Iraq and Kurdistan Region have on the draft 25-year agreement between the PRC and Iran? What direct or indirect implications will the different articles of the deal have on Iraq and Kurdistan Region? And, in which articles and paragraphs of the agreement are Iraq and Kurdistan Regions geographic, business, industrial, political, and military objectives directly or indirectly affected?
If the agreement is successful, it will undoubtedly also have a direct and indirect impact on Iraq generally as Iran’s neighbouring state and Kurdistan Region as an integral part of Iraq. As neighbours, Iraq and Iran have a direct effect on one another whenever a new political or economic change of reality comes to bear in either state. This impact is often felt broadly be it in each country’s political systems, trade activity, society or sect. To evidence this relationship, it may be enough to point to the 1458 km common border between the two countries, Iran’s longest international border. This strategic border which spans eastern Iraq and western Iran and determines the two countries joint geography and their bilateral politics and trade also includes the four Kurdish provinces in the Kurdistan Region and the four majority Kurdish Iranian provinces. The joint border has also cultivated a shared culture and shared sectarian identities. The border also determined the geo-strategy and geo-economics of both states. Furthermore, politically, since 2003, Iran regards Iraq, a significant element in its broader strategic objectives, and for Iraq, Iran is a significant influencer in its policymaking.
Here, we will identify those articles and paragraphs of the draft agreement that have a direct impact on Iraq, the Kurdistan Region and the broader Kurdish political movement.
In all, Iraq was mentioned six times in the agreement. In nine articles the term “third country” or “regional states” has been used, which we assess undoubtedly includes Iraq and Kurdistan Region.
- Politically: the first Article of the agreement emphasises that both countries will employ a “win-win” strategy with regards to other regional and international states. In the second Paragraph of Article 1, the agreement touches on the need for military and defence cooperation between the two countries and the implementation of a joint political objective at the regional level. The same aim is repeated in “Appendix 1” of the agreement.
Military and defence cooperation and a joint regional political objective between Iran and the PRC will undoubtedly impact the internal political arrangements in Iraq and Kurdistan Region. It will also likely affect the nature of their respective international alliances.
In Article 4, the agreement directly states the need to stand against hostile terrorist organisations. We can assess that for Iran this is descriptive of all the anti-regime organisations within Iran, be them Iranian groups in Iraq or Kurdish-Iranian groups in Kurdistan Region.
Furthermore, Article 7 of the agreement discusses the need for the two countries to engage in joint work in Iran’s neighbouring states to implement joint programs and projects within them.
- Trade and energy:With regards to the general politics of culture and sect, in several Articles, Iraq and Kurdistan Region have been earmarked as locations for future Iranian and PRC project. These projects include facilitating the transport of Iraqi energy, investing in Iraq’s electricity production and transport capabilities (the Article also notes Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria for similar joint projects). (Appendix 2 / Paragraph B / Article 1). Similarly, the agreements established a framework for the construction of “a sectarian railway” that links Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria and will later serve as part of a wider regional trade route (Appendix 2 / Paragraph B/ Article 1). It also discusses the implementation of joint development projects in other regional states (Appendix 2 / Paragraph H / Article 6) and working together to strengthen organisations and institutions in the region (Appendix 2 / Paragraph G / Article 2).
It is important to also mention that Kurdistan is a deemed important to Iranian political culture. Some of the Kurdish cities, such as Kermashan, Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk, Khanaqin and the Kurdish-majority areas of Diyala, make up a portion of the trade and pilgrimage route for the Middle East’s Shia community. Moreover, in the energy sector, Iran places great strategic importance to the Kurdistan Region.
Regarding the building of a railway extension to Kurdish areas of the Middle East and Kurdistan Region more specifically, the Iranian government has prepared many proposals for rail links with Iraq. In recent years plans have been made for a railway that passes through Sulaymaniyah, Khanaqin, Kermanshah, Mahabad and Wrme. For example, there is a planned rail route between Kermashan – Khasraw – Khanaqin and Baghdad. Furthermore, there is another proposed railway line, which the Iranian is supported by the Iranian President, between Sina, Bashmakh, and Sulaymaniyah. For this project, the Sina provincial council has already asked the Halabja Chambers of Commerce and Qaiwan Company to lead the building of the Kurdistan Region’s side of the railway.
Regarding southern Iraq, there are also proposals for a railway project between Khorramshahr-Basra project. The building of this railway and opening of this trade route has been stressed in the PRC-Iran agreement and also includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria.
In the final Appendix, the agreement discusses the opening of a free economic zone and joint ventures between the PRC and Iran in the “third country” such as Iraq (Appendix 3/ Paragraph A/ Article 6). Furthermore, the agreement stresses the need to take advantage of Iran’s neighbours in the field of geo-economy, which likely includes Iraq (Appendix 3/ ParagraphB).
In summary, the establishment of a trade road and railway that starts in PRC is part of the “One Belt, One Road” strategy espoused by the Chinese. For Iran, the draft agreement is a pressure card it can use against the United States, and if implemented, it will see Iran take significant strides towards achieving its cultural and sectarian project and allow it to reach its political goals.