Turkey’s expanding militarized zones in Iraq raise fears of invasion, frustrate civilians

For decades, Turkey has fought the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement that's considered a terror organization by the U.S. The rebel group has sought refuge in northern Iraq. The Turks have established dozens of military bases on Iraqi soil and expanded military activities in the Middle East. Special correspondent Simona Foltyn gained exclusive access to Turkish-controlled parts of northern Iraq.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    For decades Turkey has fought the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement that's been designated a terror organization by the U.S. and other nations.

    The rebel group has sought refuge in Northern Iraq, home to a significant Kurdish population.

    Over the years, Turkey has crossed into Northern Iraq to fight the PKK and, more recently, the Turks have established dozens of military bases on Iraqi soil.

    "PBS NewsHour" special correspondent Simona Foltyn gained exclusive access to Turkish-controlled parts of Northern Iraq.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Behind this mountain in Iraq's northern semi-autonomous Kurdish region lies what authorities here call a red zone, a restricted area where Iraq's northern neighbor Turkey has been ramping up its military presence.

    Driving up the mountain road, we reach the last checkpoint of the Iraqi border guard. The commander here isn't allowed to speak on camera, but tells us 12 new Turkish military bases have been set up here over the past year well inside Iraq's borders.

    Beyond this point, he says, Turkish forces hold de facto control over Iraqi territory. We're around eight miles away from Iraq's border with Turkey, and this is essentially a militarized zone, where Turkey has been building a growing number of bases and outposts. And we can actually see some of them on those mountaintops behind me.

    For decades, Turkey has carried out sporadic operations against the PKK, an outlawed Kurdish separatist movement considered a terror group by the U.S. and the European Union. The PKK aims to establish a Kurdish state across Kurdish majority parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, and it has long used these mountains as a base for its insurgency against the Turkish government.

    But the recent major expansion of Turkish military bases has raised fears of occupation. Down below the Turkish outposts, we find valleys emptied of civilians. Turkish operations have uprooted thousands of people in this area.

    Ali Mahmoud is one of few shepherds who've stayed behind to look after their livestock.

  • Ali Mahmoud, Shepherd (through translator):

    This is a military area now. We cannot go everywhere with our sheep. Many ways have been closed off.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    During our two-day visit, we heard several rounds of artillery being fired in the distance. One such strike hit Mahmoud's house in May, killing dozens of his animals and injuring two shepherds. He recorded this video the morning after.

    In just this area, 24 out of 26 villages have been emptied over the last couple of years. Mahmoud was forced to leave his village of Sharanish a few miles further north.

  • Ali Mahmoud (through translator):

    This is an encroachment on our lands. I had to relocate here temporarily. We hope we can go back to our village.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    It's not safe for us to access the village, but detailed satellite imagery reveals the extent to which Turkey controls the area.

    This is the Turkish outpost we saw on our way overlooking the road leading towards Sharanish. Perched atop the mountain to the north is another Turkish base. There are also two roadblocks, one before and one after Sharanish. The village itself, filmed here in 2019, has been damaged in Turkish strikes.

    Sharanish is completely deserted, this civilian says as he walks through its abandoned streets. The man who filmed the video fled to a nearby town and wanted to remain anonymous, for fear of retribution. He told the "NewsHour" that Turkish forces haven't allowed anyone to go back.

  • Man (through translator):

    We went to check on our houses, but they had blocked off the road. And when we approached, they fired warning shots.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Turkey has established around 40 military fixed points like this one across Northern Iraq, with thousands of Turkish soldiers believed to operate on Iraqi soil.

    Iraq's federal government has criticized these maneuvers as illegal and has repeatedly summoned Turkish diplomats in the capital, Baghdad.

    Ali Riza Guney is Turkey's ambassador to Iraq.

    Ali Riza Guney, Turkish Ambassador to Iraq: We are going to continue until we believe that PKK is no more threat to Turkey.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Yet the government of Iraq has condemned your presence in the north as a violation of its sovereignty.

  • Ali Riza Guney:

    They can do, but they first have to do their own job. Each and every country has the right to be sovereign, but it requires also being responsible to keep your territories clean of terrorists.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But Turkey isn't alone here. The armed forces of Iraq's Kurdish region, the Peshmerga, are building bases too.

    And while authorities in Baghdad publicly criticize Turkey's military incursions, the ruling party of Iraqi Kurdistan, constantly in dispute with the Baghdad government, has close economic relations with Turkey and has increasingly cooperated with the Turks in their fight against the PKK.

    Peshmerga commander Yasseen Sherwani has come to inspect the new base. It's one of dozens built in this area to pressure the PKK to take its fight back to Turkey.

  • Yasseen Sherwani, Peshmerga Commander (through translator):

    The PKK Cannot Be active here because it's not their area. Their area is in Turkey, but, until now, they haven't managed to control any villages there.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    And while the PKK's aim is that greater Kurdish state, Sherwani says Iraq's Kurds have what they want.

  • Yasseen Sherwani (through translator):

    We in Iraqi Kurdistan already have autonomy, and we have no problems. We have our own government.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But Kurdish authorities are also wary of igniting fresh tensions among the Kurds, who've fought brutal wars among themselves. Although the PKK sometimes attacks them, many Peshmerga are not willing to fight their own brethren.

    Marouf Hala Ismail has been a Peshmerga fighter for 31 years.

  • Marouf Hala Ismail, Peshmerga Fighter (through translator):

    I swear, if there's another fight between the Kurds, I will leave my weapon and go home.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    I ask him if Turkey can defeat the PKK in this mountainous terrain.

  • Marouf Hala Ismail (through translator):

    They're trying to put pressure on them using drones. In my opinion, this has no impact on them. They are moving from this mountain to that one.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    To see this new military strategy in action, we visited the Qandil Mountains, the PKK's bastion in Iraqi Kurdistan. To do so, we needed the PKK's approval and were accompanied by one of its members.

    Many civilians have fled the conflict, and those who've stayed behind, like Renas Zagros, are ardent PKK Supporters who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause.

  • Renas Zagros, Shopkeeper (through translator):

    Life is really difficult. Every day, there are drones and bombings.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    During the interview, a Turkish drone hovers above the shop. Turkey has denied targeting civilians, and has instead accused the PKK of using them as human shields.

    The nearly constant surveillance has forced the PKK's leadership into hiding. Its spokesperson was unable to meet for an interview. But we are able to get the PKK's perspective in the Makhmour refugee camp 100 miles Southwest of the Qandil Mountains. It was set up 23 years ago for Turkish Kurds uprooted by the Turkey-PKK Conflict.

    The Turkish government has called the camp an incubator for militants, and has repeatedly targeted it with airstrikes, killing both PKK fighters and civilians.

    Leila Arzu Ilhan is part of the camp management comprised of PKK loyalists.

  • Leila Arzu Ilhan, Makhmour Camp (through translator):

    For sure we are afraid. Every three to four days, there is a Turkish drone flying above and watching us, but it doesn't mean we will stop. We are revolting against Turkey's occupation.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Ilhan believes Turkey is using the PKK as a pretext for territorial expansion.

  • Leila Arzu Ilhan (through translator):

    They are trying to return to the times of the Ottoman Empire. They are trying to enlarge their territory at the expense of minorities.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The Iraqi officials say what's really needed is a political solution to end this decades-long conflict.

    But with none on the horizon, Turkey's fight against the PKK in Iraq has opened the door to long-term Turkish military presence and perhaps wider conflict for an already destabilized region.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simona Foltyn in Northern Iraq.

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