By Mahmut Bozarslan, Middle East Monitor, April 12, 2016
The PKK is looking to join the Iraqi army and the Kurdistan Regional Government to liberate Mosul.
After a weeklong campaign, the Islamic State (IS) captured Mosul on June 10, 2014, with the help of local supporters. That was the beginning of a new phase in the region. After putting Mosul under its absolute control, IS attacked Sinjar where Yazidi Kurds lived. Thousands of Kurds were killed and thousands were taken prisoner. The town fell under IS control. Shocked by this development, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) moved to liberate Sinjar with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on its side. The PKK, which had shown special attention to Sinjar and the Yazidis for years, finally had the opportunity it was looking for.
The PKK joined the regional Kurdish forces and sent a 500-strong unit from its base in the Qandil Mountains to Sinjar. The PKK leadership announced that it would withdraw forces after liberating Sinjar.
See feature article further below: Fearing a flood downstream from the Tigris River dam at Mosul, northern Iraq; by Patrick Martin, The Globe and Mail, April 11, 2016
But that is not what happened. After liberating Sinjar from IS, the PKK stayed put. The KRG warned the PKK to leave, but instead the group set up the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS), composed of Yazidis, and settled in.
Sources close to the PKK say that the organization has boosted its manpower in the area to 5,000 militants. Although this number could not be verified, it is obvious that the PKK is organizing itself.
At first, nobody grasped what the PKK had in mind and why it decided to stay after Sinjar was liberated. Only after rumors of a Mosul operation began did it become clear why the PKK had stayed. The PKK openly voiced its wish to join the operation to liberate Mosul. Although the KRG opposed the idea, the PKK remained firm.
Both the YBS and the PKK’s armed wing, the People’s Defense Forces, have announced they had permission from the central government to join the Mosul operation.
Why is an organization based in Turkey, whose main area of interest is Turkey’s Kurdish regions, so interested in Mosul, a center of Arab nationalism? Likewise, why does the PKK want a role in the Mosul operation when it is engaged in a new phase of clashes in Turkey?
According to academic Mehmet Alkis, who conducts research on the Middle East and the Kurds, the PKK is aiming both to polish its image and boost its legitimacy. “This issue has two facets. First is the international politics angle. The PKK is trying to erase Turkey’s frequently voiced allegation that it is a ‘terror organization,’ which is an image accepted by the United States and the European Union,” Alkis told Al-Monitor. “It wants to establish relations with those countries and acquire legitimacy in international politics. The second aspect is its wish to become an actor in Middle East dynamics. If it can get IS out of Mosul, it will achieve that legitimacy and find itself in good standing in regional politics.”
Alkis thinks this won’t be that easy. “The PKK is trying to find a niche for itself by aligning its actions with regional actors. It wants to find a place between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This is also an issue between the PKK and [Massoud Barzani’s] Kurdish Democratic Party [KDP]. The KDP has set up a de facto country. The PKK wants to get ahead of the KDP by becoming a party in Mosul. Indeed, global forces see the Kurds as a regional actor and this sometimes leads to angry competition between the Kurds of the PKK and the KDP,” he added.
So what is the PKK’s chance of success? Alkis thinks that depends on international support, and that the PKK had to secure the support of global powers. It cannot achieve its dreams only by aligning itself with regional powers.
Erbil-based political analyst Siddik Hasan Sukru says that by creating an area it can control in Mosul, the PKK will be protecting both Sinjar and the Kurdish region in Syria.
“[The] capture of Mosul will be a guarantee for Rojava [the Kurdish term for western Kurdistan in Syria] and especially Sinjar. As long as IS is in Mosul, it will be a threat to Sinjar, Rojava and the Jazeera canton. The PKK is preoccupied with the Kurds of Turkey and Rojava, but I don’t think their interest in Mosul has anything to do with obtaining legitimacy. This is not their problem. The PKK wants to find its place in the region and become an actor in restructuring of the region. I don’t think the PKK will seek its legitimacy from the United States and Europe. It will want it from the Kurds,” Sukru told Al-Monitor.
Sukru says although the PKK claims it has the permission of the Iraqi government, it cannot participate in the Mosul operation without the agreement of the United States. “The PKK announced it is ready to join the operation with 4,000 guerrillas. But it can’t do it without the permission of the United States. Then there is Turkey. Turkish forces brought to Bashiqa are not there to fight IS but to block the PKK and its allies. Without US blessing there will be problems between Turkey and the PKK,” he explained.
As the debate continued, the Iraqi army announced last month the start of its Mosul operation. The Iraqi army, along with Kurdish forces, began advancing toward Mosul from Makhmur but then called off the operation after a few days.
The operation is expected to resume any moment but for now it appears to be a local skirmish. The real conflict will be behind the scenes between the Kurds. On the one hand, you have Barzani’s KDP, which doesn’t want the PKK, and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which does. Behind it all is the power game over Mosul between regional powers such as Turkey and Iran. If it can get a role in the operations and control some territory, the winner may well be the PKK because it will then be astride an invaluable corridor between the Qandil Mountains and Syria.
Mahmut Bozarslan is based in Diyarbakir, the central city of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. A journalist since 1996, he has worked for the mass-circulation daily Sabah, the NTV news channel, Al Jazeera Turk and Agence France-Presse (AFP), covering the many aspects of the Kurdish question, as well as the local economy and women’s and refugee issues. He has frequently reported also from Iraqi Kurdistan. On Twitter: @mahmutbozarslan
Fearing a flood downstream from the Tigris River dam at Mosul, northern Iraq
By Patrick Martin, The Globe and Mail, April 11, 2016
Mosul Dam, a Saddam Hussein vanity [sic] project, has required constant repair since it was constructed more than three decades ago. But as Patrick Martin reports, experts warn war and maintenance disruption have created an ‘unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure’
Iraq is facing an unprecedented threat from the giant Mosul Dam, upstream from its biggest cities. U.S. experts warn the dam is in danger of bursting and unleashing a catastrophic tsunami-like wave. The country, under attack from Islamic State extremists and still reeling from a U.S. invasion and sectarian war, must now contend with a scenario that could be more deadly than all of these combined.
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad has warned that the 3 1/2-kilometre-long earthen dike holding back more than 11 billion cubic metres of the Tigris river “faces a serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure.” Should it blow, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says, it would create a wave some 25 metres high that would race down the middle of Iraq’s most populated and developed areas sweeping downstream anything in its path, including bodies, livestock, buildings, cars, unexploded ordnances and hazardous chemicals.
The embassy report warned it “would result in severe loss of life, mass population displacement and destruction of the majority of the infrastructure within the path of the projected flood wave.”
Studies by U.S., Iraqi and European engineers estimate that between 500,000 and 1.5 million people would likely be killed by such a flood and its aftermath. It would be “a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said last month as she called on UN member states to press for “urgently needed” action.
Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is reported to have delivered a confidential note to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi from U.S. President Barack Obama. In it, the U.S. leader is said to have pleaded with Mr. al-Abadi to take immediate action to protect the lives of the many Iraqis at risk.
The President’s personal intervention makes it clear Washington fears a breach in the dam may be imminent and would jeopardize efforts to stabilize the Abadi government and confound the war against the Islamic State.
The Mosul Dam was largely a vanity project ordered by Saddam Hussein in 1981, even as the Iran-Iraq war was raging. It was finished and put into use in 1986, providing electricity to more than two million people in Mosul and the surrounding area.
The problem, however, is that little thought was given to its location and it was constructed atop a bed of gypsum, a mineral that dissolves in water. (See infographic.)
Alert to the possibility that IS fighters might sabotage the dam, a joint force of Iraqi Kurds and Arabs regained control of the structure and continue to jointly guard it against IS forces only a few kilometres away. The IS fighters, however, looted the facility before they left, taking with them much of the grouting equipment and leaving the dam vulnerable.
Sensors planted by U.S. Army engineers in December show growing crevices in the gypsum base that holds up the earthen dike.
Despite the warnings, however, little has been done to safeguard the people, the infrastructure, the industry and the farmland that are at stake.
Meanwhile, the spring runoff from the mountains north of the dam is beginning to build on the Tigris.
“The dam is in a very dangerous situation now,” said Dr. Nasrat Adamo, who oversaw the dam for several years until 2014. The floods of March and April “will definitely raise the water to alarming levels,” he told the BBC. “My feeling is the dam will fail some time in the [near] future.”
“If this dam were in the United States, we would have drained the lake behind it,” Lieutenant-General Sean MacFarland, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad when the embassy warning was released on Feb. 29.
To make matters worse, the embassy noted, the underwater safety gates that can be opened to release water and reduce pressure are not working properly.
Iraqi officials have known about the dangerous situation with the gypsum base since before the completion of the dam. As early as 1984, Swiss consultants retained by the Iraqi government cautioned it would be a serious problem and they warned of the disastrous consequences of a breach. An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga stands guard near the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq, February 3, 2016.
Their report was kept a closely guarded secret while officials dismissed any suggestion of possible leaks. They utilized hundreds of men and special grouting equipment to pump cement into the fissures on a daily basis to mend the cracks.
The constant grouting held it together for a number of years. (Known then as the Saddam Dam, the regime made sure the structure got all the attention it needed.)
When the U.S.-led invasion forced Mr. Hussein from office, U.S. Army engineers took charge of the massive dam and knew to continue the extensive grouting. When handing it back to Iraqi control in 2011, they warned that “a failure of the Mosul Dam could cost 500,000 civilian lives in the immediate aftermath.”
Iraqis kept up the maintenance, too. But now, with the war against the Islamic State so close, the Iraqi authorities seem unable to get sufficient equipment or workers to properly maintain the site.
The approximately 1.5 million Iraqis residing along the Tigris are at the highest risk from the flood wave and will require prompt evacuation orders if they are to survive, experts warn.
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