During a routine search and destroy mission on 24 January 2019, Turkish Air Force (TAF) attack aircraft engaged suspected Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets, killing six civilians near the town of Deraluk in rural Amedi Province. An initial strike killed four, and a second attack killed two relatives of the victims who had gone to retrieve the casualties of the first strike.1.“Four killed, two missing in Turkish airstrike in Duhok province” : Rudaw
What followed two days later was an unprecedented expression of frustration and dismay towards the Turkish military presence in northern Iraq which resulted in the storming and destruction of the Turkish army base in Sirye village just to the east of Shiladze.2.“حركة الجيل الجديد تتهم أسايش حزب بارزاني بضرب متظاهروا منطقة شيلادزي” : Iraq Akhbar This event is the consummation of years of frustration towards both the PKK and the Turkish military, and may not be the last time that locals lash out against forces that they see as illegal and uninvited occupiers in their territory.
Turkey in Northern Iraq
Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq dates back to 1992, when Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and TAF aircraft collaborated with Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces to drive the PKK out of their positions in Duhok and Qandil, which at the time served as mountainous strongholds for the PKK.3.Marcus, Aliza. “Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence” NYU Press, New York, NY (2007) A truce was signed but broke down in 2004. Beginning in early 2008, Turkey resumed cross-border operations into northern Iraq with the tacit consent of the new administration in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).4.Marcus, Aliza. “Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence” NYU Press, New York, NY (2007) Since then, Turkey has maintained a near-constant military presence in northern Iraq, with bases scattered throughout the countryside and a heavy presence at the border near Zakho, and has consistently targeted PKK positions and bases.5.https://i.imgur.com/xD9dy5j.png Turkish PM Binali Yildirim has stated on record that Turkey maintains at least 11 official bases in northern Iraq, one of them being the position in Sirye village.6.“Turkey has 11 bases in northern Iraq: PM Yildirim” : Hurriyet
For some time, the Turkish presence in northern Iraq was cautiously tolerated by locals, despite civilian casualties caused by TAF airstrikes. Local testimonies suggest that support for the PKK was low and that many people in the Duhok and Zakho regions supported the official stance of the KRG, which disavowed the PKK and their insurgent tactics.7.“Turkey launches major land offensive into Northern Iraq” : Reuters As the toll of airstrikes mounted, however, so did dissent. The civilian death toll was rising and the Turkish government had little to show for their airstrikes, and the limited information about PKK casualties in the strikes made it difficult to justify the continuing operations.8.“Kurdish group confirms civilians killed in Turkey’s Qandil airstrikes” : Rudaw As the conflict against the Islamic State (IS) began to wind down in 2017, TAF airstrikes rose in frequency, and the number of strikes hitting questionable targets and civilians rose to the point that locals protested to leadership in Erbil and Baghdad.9.“ناحية سيدكان تؤكد مقتل وجرح أكثر من 160 مدنياً جراء القصف التركي والإيراني” : al-Sumaria TV10.“Turkey/Iraq: Strikes May Break Laws of War” : HRW In some cases, Turkish aircraft were targeting confirmed PKK positions but also accidentally struck civilians, as was the case for Amdad Darwish Hassan, who was killed while driving home by a Turkish missile.11.“Turkey/Iraq: Strikes May Break Laws of War” : HRW Simultaneous strikes destroyed a PKK safehouse and a PKK vehicle, with Hassan’s vehicle ending up being a target as well. Other strikes had no nearby military targets, yet were greenlit for unknown reasons.
Relatives of the victims wanted compensation for their losses but had no avenues to receive it or voice their grievances, and began to address their governments. Local leaders sent letters to the authorities and petitioned for redress, hoping to at least channel their concerns through those whose voices were magnified by their position. They were greeted with silence in Erbil and Baghdad, as the federal government continued to tacitly tolerate the Turkish presence even as it raised some complaints about Turkish military conduct within their borders. Some chose to demonstrate publicly and air their grievances to local media; others opted to flee, abandoning their homes and livelihoods as they deemed their villages unsafe.12.“Kurdish villagers driven off their mountainsides by Turkish airstrikes” : Rudaw Hundreds, if not thousands, moved to the cities to avoid the strikes. Those who remained lived in a constant state of caution.
The Incident and Its Aftermath
The final straw for many residents in the north were the 24 January strikes, which, as previously mentioned, resulted in the deaths of six civilians. All six were members of the Rekani tribe, which inhabited the Shiladze region, and their deaths became a rallying cry for tribal elders, who demanded justice.13.“Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq fed up with both Erdogan, PKK” : al-Monitor The Rekani protesters initially gathered in Shiladze town, where they decried the strikes, called on both the PKK and TSK to vacate Iraqi soil, and condemned both organisations as illegal occupiers.14.“Protesters storm Turkish base after civilian deaths in airstrikes” : Rudaw A large group then marched to Sirye village, where they joined with other angry locals and stormed the Turkish military base there. The protesters vandalized property, set fire to buildings and vehicles, and drove out the local garrison.15.“Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq fed up with both Erdogan, PKK” : al-Monitor The garrison exercised extreme caution in dealing with the protest, avoiding confrontation and retreating when threatened.16.“Kurdish civilians in northern Iraq fed up with both Erdogan, PKK” : al-Monitor In spite of their deescalation tactics, fights broke out and a few members of the garrison fired on a group of the locals, killing two and injuring others.17.Report by the Duhok Post. Local Peshmerga stepped in to end the violence and make arrests, going so far as to detain journalists covering the incident.18.“حركة الجيل الجديد تتهم أسايش حزب بارزاني بضرب متظاهروا منطقة شيلادزي” : Iraq Akhbar19.https://twitter.com/mutludc/status/1089202688544423937
Condemnation from Erbil and Baghdad has been minimal. Parties in both cities have expressed shock at the incident and condemned the civilian deaths, but have taken little action and likely will continue such in the future. Both Erbil and Ankara have expressed renewed interest in strengthening economic ties, and the two entities have grown closer. Turkey has lifted its ban on flights from Turkish airports to Sulaymaniyah, the Turkish government has offered a sizeable credit line to Turkish businesses willing to invest in the Kurdistan region, and the flow of oil between the two has increased.20.“Ban lifted, first Turkish flight in over a year lands in Sulaimani” : Kurdistan2421.“Ankara offers $5bn credit for Turkish companies rebuilding Iraq” : Rudaw Turkish companies are increasingly putting stock into construction and development projects in the Kurdistan region, and more often than not substantial amounts of money make their way to the ruling political parties in Erbil, guaranteeing continuing cooperation between Kurdish elites and Ankara. Baghdad, too, has a vested interest in allowing Ankara to continue investing in Iraq, and Turkey has become a reliable trading partner for Iraqi oil and natural gas ventures. None of these governments are interested in endangering this status quo by taking decisive action on the Shiladze issue.
In the aftermath of the incident, little has changed. The dozens of protesters detained by Kurdish police remain in jail, often without charges.22.“Protesters accused of storming Turkish military base linger in jail” : Rudaw Turkish military activities in the region continue. The flight of civilians from rural regions to Duhok and Zakho continues unabated. If nothing changes, the Shiladze incident will not be an isolated case. The Turkish government’s careless actions and lack of responsibility towards civilian casualties will only serve to raise tensions further. Locals will likely not align themselves with the PKK, but will no longer passively tolerate the Turkish military presence either. People will protest, lash out, and strike at those they deem responsible for their plight – whether that be KRG authorities, PKK members, or Turkish soldiers deployed in northern Iraq. Unless serious efforts are made by multiple parties to address the grievances of locals, mitigate the negative effects of Turkish strikes, or end the strike campaign entirely, this escalation will continue.