Conflict Watchlist 2023

Kurdish Regions: High Risk of Violent Escalation and Domestic Turmoil

Posted: 8 February 2023

The Kurdish regions — spanning northern Syria and Iraq, southeastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran — were the site of heightened tensions in 2022. Violence significantly increased in northern Iraq and Syria as Turkey intensified its military operations against Kurdish fighters, while Iran also stepped up attacks on opposition Kurdish armed groups based in northern Iraq. Domestic dynamics — including the upcoming election in Turkey and the reemergence of anti-government demonstrations in Iran — are likely to continue driving heightened levels of political violence in the region in 2023.

Within Turkey, Kurdish militants remained the largest security threat to the Turkish government in 2022. Nearly 80% of political violence events reported in Turkey last year involved Kurdish militants, mainly operating in the majority-Kurdish southeast. Nevertheless, violence on Turkish soil involving the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — the main Kurdish armed group fighting Turkey for nearly four decades — decreased by more than 40% overall compared to 2021, building on sustained reductions in recent years. This indicates a measure of success for the Turkish military in pushing the PKK out of Turkey, increasingly shifting the conflict beyond Turkish borders.

In Syria, Turkey intensified its military operations against the Syrian Democratic Forces and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) significantly in 2022, with a nearly two-fold increase in Turkish military activity in the country compared to 2021. With the potential for the emergence of a power vacuum in Syria due to Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine,1Leena Khan, ‘Erdoğan’s opportunism in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war,’ Middle East Institute, 6 July 2022 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renewed calls to establish a safe zone 30 kilometers deep into northern Syria in May.2Hurriyet Daily News, ‘Turkey to continue safe zone efforts in N Syria: Erdoğan,’ 24 May 2022 Following a deadly bombing in Istanbul on 13 November, which Turkish authorities blame on the YPG, Erdogan sharpened threats of launching a ground incursion into Syria.3BBC, ‘Turkey will launch Syria ground operation after strikes – Erdogan,’ 23 November 2022 In November 2022, violent incidents involving Turkish forces in Syria rose to their highest point since 2018, raising concerns of an imminent Turkish ground operation.

In Iraq, ACLED records over 3,500 political violence events involving Turkish military forces in 2022, marking a 75% increase compared to 2021. Turkey continued to rely heavily on air and drone strikes, which made up nearly half of all events involving Turkish military forces in Iraq last year. The majority of events involving Turkish forces in northern Iraq occurred in Dahuk governorate, where the PKK has its stronghold in the Qandil mountains. Yet, Turkey also targeted Kurdish militants further south, including in the federally controlled areas of Ninawa governorate. In Sinjar — a majority-Yazidi district governed by the Sinjar Resistance Units that has links to the PKK as well as Iran-backed Shiite paramilitaries — Turkish forces conducted nearly 20 airstrikes. In return, several retaliatory attacks were launched on Turkish positions in Ninawa, which analysts attributed to façade groups linked to “Shiite pro-Iran ‘resistance’ factions.”4International Crisis Group, ‘Iraq: Stabilising the Contested District of Sinjar,’ 31 May 2022

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities accused armed Kurdish opposition groups of instigating riots amid the nationwide demonstrations sparked by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman, in September.5Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Samya Kullab, ‘Blaming Kurds for unrest, Iran threatens Iraq with offensive,’ Associated Press, 18 November 2022 On the back of these accusations, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched several rounds of drone, artillery, and missile strikes against Iranian Kurdish opposition strongholds in northern Iraq between September and November, reportedly killing over 20 people. Iran also strengthened military reinforcements along its western borders, with the IRGC threatening to launch a cross-border ground invasion into Iraqi Kurdistan if Iraq did not fortify the border.

What to watch for in 2023

In recent months, Russia has pushed for the normalization of ties between Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Syrian and Turkish defense ministers held a landmark meeting at the end of December, and Erdogan has indicated his openness to meeting with Assad.6Al-Monitor, ‘Will Erdogan and Assad soon meet to bury the hatchet?,’ 6 January 2023 If the rapprochement continues, Turkey may freeze its unilateral military operations and hold back any potential ground operation, in favor of some form of coordinated action with the Syrian regime to drive Kurdish militants out of strategically important areas, such as Tal Rifaat and Manbij. More likely, Ankara is hoping that Moscow and Damascus would be able to convince Kurdish militants to withdraw from these areas without fighting.7Begum Donmez Ersoz, ‘Is an Assad-Erdogan Reconciliation Likely Before Turkey’s Elections?,’ Voice of America, 4 January 2023 If the rapprochement breaks down, Ankara may go ahead with its threat of conducting a ground operation, though likely only at a limited scale that could be tolerated by the United States and Russia.8Suleyman Ozeren and Suat Cubukcu, ‘Will Turkey’s Meddling in Syria Solve the Kurdish Dilemma?,’ Manara, 5 January 2023 To this end, Turkey may be able to further leverage its position as a NATO member and mediator between Russia and Ukraine to extract concessions from Washington and Moscow.9Cathrin Schaer and Sinem Özdemir, ‘What is Turkey’s strategy in Iraq, Syria?,’ Deutsche Welle, 27 July 2022

Moreover, the Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections, scheduled for June, have the potential to drive further escalation dynamics in northern Syria and Iraq. Polls suggest that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan’s popularity is faltering after two decades amid hyperinflation that has crippled Turkey’s economy.10Alper Coşkun and Sinan Ülgen, ‘Political Change and Turkey’s Foreign Policy,’ Carnegie, 14 November 2022 In an attempt to foster political gains, Erdogan may look for substantial military successes in the lead-up to the elections to maximize a rally-around-the-flag effect, having previously pursued military strategies ahead of the 2018 elections.11Kareem Shaheen, ‘Turkey elections 2018: everything you need to know,’ The Guardian, 18 June 2018 These may include the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria to repatriate Syrian refugees,12Begum Donmez Ersoz, ‘Is an Assad-Erdogan Reconciliation Likely Before Turkey’s Elections?,’ Voice of America, 4 January 2023 or the capture of members of the PKK high command in northern Iraq.13Salim Çevik, ‘Turkey’s Military Operations in Syria and Iraq,’ Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, 30 May 2022 

The intensification of Turkish military operations in northern Iraqi Kurdistan may increasingly drive PKK elements deeper south, leading to a further expansion of Turkish operations southwards. Increased violence in these more densely populated areas will also increase the risk to civilians. Furthermore, Turkey’s airstrikes targeting Ninawa governorate, where both Iraqi federal troops and pro-Iran militias operate, could lead to an escalation of violence between Ankara and Iran’s affiliates. Turkey’s assertive regional policies will likely continue even if Erdogan is defeated in the upcoming elections. The Turkish opposition’s views on the Kurdish issue largely mirror the AKP’s securitization logic.14Erwin Van Veen and Engin Yüksel, ‘Turkish interventions in its near abroad: The case of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,’ Clingendael, 15 March 2022 The relative military success of recent years will likely continue to reinforce the tendency to securitize the issue to the detriment of a political solution.

Meanwhile, Iraq has sent federal forces to the Kurdistan region along its borders with Iran and Turkey to help Kurdistan Regional Government forces enhance border security. The move came after Iran warned its military operations inside Iraq would otherwise continue unless Iraq took adequate measures to secure the border.15Arab News, ‘Iraq to redeploy federal forces along border with Iran and Turkiye,’ 24 November 2022 This has de-escalated Iranian cross-border operations for the time being.

In Iran, nationwide demonstrations have begun to decline. However, opposition to the Iranian regime is unlikely to abate completely. Internal developments in Iran will therefore have to be closely watched. With only rare exceptions, demonstrators across Iran were unarmed, and Kurdish opposition forces have denied accusations by Iranian authorities of providing any armed support to the protesters.16Jonathan Spyer, ‘Iran protests: Inside the Kurdish uprising against the Iranian regime,’ Jerusalem Post, 16 December 2022 However, reports have emerged of dozens of demonstrators in western Iran joining Kurdish armed groups, and these groups have issued warnings that they are prepared to help demonstrators take up arms in the future if the situation escalates.17Tamara Qiblawi et al., ‘From protester to fighter: Fleeing Iran’s brutal crackdown to take up arms over the border,’ CNN, 18 October 2022 Renewed rounds of demonstrations and heavy-handed crackdowns by security forces may lead to armed resistance inside Iran’s Kurdish regions and a more intense spillover of conflict into northern Iraq.