WASHINGTON -- Iraq's embattled Kurds feel trapped by the resurgent conflict between Turkey and the militant Kurdish PKK movement and would like to see both sides return to the negotiating table, Iraqi Kurdistan's foreign minister told reporters here Friday.
"We don't believe there will be a military solution" to the decades-long conflict, Falah Mustafa Bakir said. "We hope and urge both sides to go back to the ceasefire, to commit themselves to the peace process, and to the solution that started in Turkey [in 2012], because at the end of the day, it's stability, security and safety that we need to have on our borders."
Bakir added that while Kurdistan respects Turkey's concerns about PKK actions such as recent attacks on police officers, it does not agree with Ankara's claim that the Kurdish militant organization is as great a threat as the Islamic State, or ISIS. The Turkish government began to directly attack both the Islamic State and the PKK around the same time last week.
"ISIS is a problem, a terrorist organization. It's the most brutal terror organization. There is an anti-[ISIS] coalition and we want to be partners in this. We welcome Turkey's participation, but connecting the PKK with the terrorism of ISIS -- we don't believe that [and] it's not the right time to mention this," Bakir said. "Yes, the PKK is a problem. It has to be dealt with. But in a different way."
The minister's comments carry significant weight for two reasons.
The first is that the Iraqi Kurds are essential to defeating ISIS in Iraq, so their concerns echo loudly in capitals around the world -- especially in Washington, where the Iraqi Kurds are seen as uniquely reliable partners. Bakir's endorsement of a renewed ceasefire and his warnings about the negative effect the Turkey-PKK conflict is having on his region are therefore likely to be key considerations for policymakers in the U.S.
Nearly as important is the fact that the Kurdistan regional government of Iraq has the rare ability to exercise leverage on either side of the Turkey-PKK conflict: with the government in Ankara, which enjoys strong trade ties with Kurdistan, and the exiled PKK leadership, which values its "guest" status in Kurdistan's Qandil mountains.
Turkey's strikes in the mountain range have led to internal displacement and injuries among Kurdistan residents, Bakir noted. The region is already home to 1.8 million refugees, from Syria and from other parts of Iraq, and it has a 1,050-kilometer border with ISIS, which it spends significant resources defending.
Turkey's move, which U.S. officials have said they respect as vital for Turkish self-defense, also threatens the ISIS fight in a different way, among an entirely separate group of Kurds -- those in Syria. The Syrian Kurds, the group that defended Kobani with air support from the anti-ISIS coalition, are closely linked to the PKK. While Turkey has said it does not intend to target them in its new campaign, its actions complicate the nascent partnership between Washington and the Syrian Kurds.
Iraqi Kurdistan was only notified about Turkey's decision after it was made, Bakir told the reporters. He said his government had raised its disapproval of Ankara's new military campaign with the Turkish government.
"We are caught in between two sides. Both sides decided that there is no ceasefire, that's why we are caught in between," Bakir continued. "We neither agree with the PKK [decision] to announce that the ceasefire is over, nor do we agree on the Kurdistan region to be bombarded, because this is not the solution -- it only escalates the tension and it leads to more violence."
"The Middle East region is already volatile and full of uncertainties and tensions. We would like to see less and less tension."