Turkey-PKK clashes have serious consequences for the Kurdistan Region. Iraqi Kurdish leaders have helped to de-escalate tensions before—and if Turkey’s elections lead to renewed dialogue, they may be well-placed to do so again.
Today, the armed conflict between the government of Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is largely fought in Iraqi Kurdistan. Both major Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have clashed with the PKK in the past. The KDP enjoys relatively positive relations with Turkey’s government despite Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nationalist turn. Yet both the KDP and the PUK have supported efforts to resolve Turkey’s Kurdish issue at the negotiating table despite Turkish pressure to join the war on the PKK completely— and were a new dialogue to occur after Turkey’s May elections, participation would be in their interests.
The relationship between the PKK and the Iraqi Kurdish parties has been complex from the beginning. The PKK established its presence in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1982 through a deal with the KDP that allowed the PKK to move fighters to the Qandil Mountains. Imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan called for a return to the 1982 agreement amidst intra-Kurdish tensions in 2020, after calls from the KRG and KDP for the PKK to leave Iraqi Kurdistan entirely.
In 1993, PUK leader Jalal Talabani was present when PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan announced the PKK’s first short-lived ceasefire, which ultimately collapsed. In the 1990s, violent clashes between rival Kurdish parties took place in Iraqi Kurdistan—including between the PKK and the KDP. Furthermore, battles between the PKK and the PUK also occurred in the Qopi-Qaradagh mountains. The PKK initially refused to leave the area, but withdrew after reaching an agreement with Talabani in 1999.
Negotiations in the late 2000s and early 2010s saw greater Iraqi Kurdish involvement. In Turkey’s Mission Impossible: War and Peace with the Kurds, Cengiz Candar described the role of the Iraqi Kurdish parties as intermediaries between Turkey and the PKK during the Oslo talks between 2008 and 2011, and the peace process in 2013-2015.
Candar states that PUK’s Talabani and KDP’s Barzani both supported a Turkish settlement with the PKK. Talabani was actively involved in PKK-Turkey talks between 2006 and 2008. Moreover, the KDP’s Masoud Barzani also participated in some efforts toward a settlement in 2006-2007 (3). In 2007, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül initiated an endeavor for a settlement with the PKK through Iraqi Kurdish leaders.
Additionally, Iraqi Kurdish officials played a role during the 2013-2015 peace process. For example, in 2013, Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan paid a visit to Jalal Talabani in Germany. Likewise, in 2013, the KDP’s Fuad Hussein, former Chief of Staff to Masoud Barzani, told Rudaw during the peace process that the “Kurdistan Region will continue to assist the process.”
The KDP and PUK hoped the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) would form a coalition with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This was expressed by the ousted PUK co-chair Lahur Talabani in an interview in Al Monitor. But the HDP did not trust the AKP, and its leader Selahattin Demirtas challenged Erdogan in the presidential election. Demirtas also considered Barzani’s visit to Turkey in 2013, in which Barzani held a joint event with Erdogan and renowned Kurdish singer Sivan Perwer in Diyarbakir, to be an attempt to undermine the HDP.
The End of the Peace Process
In 2015, Nechirvan Barzani said that KDP leader Masoud Barzani was willing to intervene to revive the peace process between Ankara and the PKK after it had collapsed. On several occasions, KDP officials repeated their willingness to support a renewed peace process.
In 2017, a HDP official told Rudaw that Masoud Barzani could play a role in restarting the peace process. However, he would be unlikely to play such a role unless Turkey and the PKK returned to the negotiating table. In 2017, Rudaw also reported that Masoud Barzani was ready to help if the PKK and Turkey resumed dialogue.
During a meeting with an HDP delegation in 2019 in Iraqi Kurdistan, President Nechirvan Barzani reiterated the importance of solving the Kurdish issue through peace and dialogue and promised that no efforts should be spared to bring about lasting peace in Turkey.
During the war against ISIS and the peace process in Turkey, and after the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum in September 2017 (which Turkey opposed), the KDP had better relations with the PKK and its local affiliates. Yet since 2019, when Turkey launched the first of several expansive military operations against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, tensions have increased between PKK guerrillas and the KDP’s pershmerga forces—leading to mutual accusations and occasional armed clashes. The KDP and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have called on the PKK to leave Iraqi Kurdistan, accusing it of destabilizing the region. The PKK, for its part, has accused the KDP of working with Turkey against Kurdish interests.
Ultimately, the PKK views itself as a pan-Kurdish movement with interests in Syria, Iraq and Iran as well as Turkey, while the KDP views the PKK as a Kurdish group concerned with the Kurdish issue in Turkey only—a divergence that will continue to lead to disagreements.
The PUK always had a better relationship with the PKK and the wider Ocalan-inspired Kurdish movement. It played a key role in supporting the SDF in their relationship with the U.S. After the ouster of Lahur Talabani from the PUK by Bafel Talabani, there was speculation that Turkey was involved, and that the shake-up would result in a change in the PUK’s policy towards these groups.
However, Bafel Talabani continued to support the SDF. During Rudaw’s Erbil Forum in March, he said the Iraqi Kurds should try to play a role to mediate a new peace process between the PKK and Turkey, recalling the role of his father in the peace process. “If Mam Jalal (Jalal Talabani) was able to do it, why can’t we?” Talabani asked. He also sent a Newroz message to the HDP-led Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakir.
The recent crash of a helicopter carrying SDF fighters to Sulaymaniyah and the alleged Turkish drone strike targeting SDF Commander in Chief Mazlum Kobane at Sulaymaniyah International Airport have made it clear that Turkey will likely put pressure on the PUK to change these policies—though to what extent this will succeed is uncertain.
Implications for the Future
The KDP and PUK would prefer a renewed peace process to the current status of the Turkey-PKK conflict. The end of the 2013-2015 dialogue and the subsequent alliance between Erdogan’s AKP and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) did not benefit Iraqi Kurds. In 2017, the AKP-MHP government opposed the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum, believing that its success would strengthen Kurdish identity in Turkey and thus negatively impact Erdogan’s electoral prospects.
Today, Turkey is increasing its military presence in the Kurdistan Region and putting more pressure on both parties to crack down on the PKK and groups that Turkey sees as its affiliates.
The alleged Turkish bombing of a tourist resort near Zakho on July 20, 2022, which killed several civilians, created more opposition towards the increased Turkish ground presence in Iraq. The Iraqi government blamed Turkey for agreeing with the PKK that the group would move its fighters into Iraqi territory in 2013 during the peace process. Baghdad also accused Ankara of not consulting with the Iraqi government during the dialogue. At a U.N. Security Council meeting on the Zakho incident, Iraqi FM Fuad Hussein, known to be close to Masoud Barzani, called for Turkey to withdraw its troops from Iraqi territory, showing the KDP’s pragmatism in its relations with Turkey.
“We hope that this violence will end, we want peace and a new peace process in Turkey, and this conflict should be outside of the borders of the Kurdistan region,” Chiya Hamid Sharif, a KDP lawmaker, told Middle East Eye after the Zakho incident, indicating that there are still circles within the KDP that hope for a return to a peace process. A KDP spokesperson also earlier told Rudaw that the KRG would defend the PKK in talks with Turkey if the PKK returned to Qandil.
The AKP has shown no interest in restarting talks to date. In 2016, Turkey refused a US offer to support new talks. In 2019, rumors of a new peace process spread in the Turkish media, and senior PKK leader Cemil Bayik made an ignored call for dialogue in the Washington Post.
The outcome of the upcoming May elections remains to be seen. It is also uncertain whether the Kemalist-led opposition would prioritize reviving the peace process if they come to power. CHP leader and opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu has stated that Turkey’s parliament can resolve the Kurdish issue, while more nationalist components of the opposition refuse to even meet with the HDP.
The PKK has indicated that it may be interested in returning to the table. In February, Cemil Bayik told the Kurdish Peace Institute that the PKK is ready for new talks and welcomed a U.S. official’s statement that there is no military solution to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. In February, the PKK declared a partial ceasefire, which it recently extended through the May 14th elections. It has stated that the ceasefire may be extended again after the vote.
If a future Turkish government (either led by the CHP or AKP) initiates a peace process, it can be expected that Iraqi Kurdish parties would extend their support towards it, despite their differences with the PKK.
They may use their roles as potential intermediaries to ensure that negotiations address conflict dynamics relevant to their interests. An issue that may be of particular importance to them would be what sort of presence the PKK would have in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is unlikely that they would support the withdrawal of military forces into Iraqi Kurdistan as they did in 2015.
A fresh peace process also holds the potential to improve relations between the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES) and the KRG. Without Turkish pressure on the KRG, economic ties between the two could flourish across the border. This, in turn, would boost stability and the economy in northeast Syria, ultimately assisting the U.S.-led counter-ISIS mission.
In the past, intra-Kurdish tensions have hindered U.S. logistical support to the SDF, making improved relations between the AANES and KRG a particularly important step forward. Moreover, the lifting of U.S. sanctions on northeast Syria proved ineffective due to ongoing military threats from Turkey. Without Turkish threats, the economy could drastically improve.
(Photo: Alessandro Rota for Getty Images)