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New Report—Caught in the Crossfire: Assyrians and the Turkey-PKK Conflict in Iraq

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

The Assyrian Policy Institute announces the release of our new report, Caught in the Crossfire: Assyrians and the Turkey-PKK Conflict in Iraq. For decades, Assyrians in Iraq have been caught in the crossfire of the ongoing conflict between Turkey and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) along the Iraqi-Turkish border.

Over the course of the past year, the Turkish government has intensified its military operations targeting the PKK on the grounds of domestic security. The recent interventions are part of a decades-long campaign which began in the early 1990s when the PKK set up its main command centers in the mountainous regions of today’s Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The operations in northern Iraq increased in June 2020, when Turkey launched Operations Claw-Eagle and Claw-Tiger—its most aggressive offensive targeting PKK strongholds in the country since 2015. Operation Claw-Eagle comprised Turkey’s aerial campaign, while Operation Claw-Tiger encompassed the attacks launched by the military’s ground operations in northern Iraq.

Turkey has consistently pursued the PKK in northern Iraq with little regard for the negative consequences for civilian populations who inhabit the same areas occupied by the militant group. The airborne attacks often occur in close proximity to areas mainly inhabited by Assyrian, Yazidi, and/or Kurdish civilians, posing significant risks including: endangerment of civilian life, displacement, traumatization, destruction of property, and agricultural lands, and threats to livelihoods. The PKK continues to endanger civilian populations by operating from or near civilian areas, carrying out attacks on Turkey and Turkish military bases in the KRI.

This first-of-its-kind report documents the dates and locations of Turkish airstrikes across 2020 which occurred in close proximity to villages inhabited by Assyrians in Duhok Governorate. It also examines the consistent challenges to the security and livelihoods of Assyrians as a result of the hostilities. The API has obtained information in regard to 52 incidents in 2020 in which Turkish strikes targeted areas inhabited by Assyrians. The data collected by API researchers shows that the Assyrian areas most frequently targeted include the Assyrian villages in the Barwar Region and Sapna Valley in Amediya District, villages in Zakho District, and—to a lesser extent—the Nahla Valley in Akre and Amediya Districts.

Presenting the report, API Director Reine Hanna said, “Assyrians caught in the midst of this conflict are up against a unique set of challenges, and urgent action is needed to address them. It must be understood that the many consequences of this conflict—from threats to civilian life to harm caused to property and livelihoods—have a disproportionate effect on minoritized peoples like Assyrians. They increase the likelihood of displacement and accelerate the ongoing and silent exodus of Assyrians from their homeland in today’s Kurdistan Region of Iraq.”

Despite mounting criticism of the Turkish government’s military intervention in northern Iraq, Iraqi and KRG authorities have failed to take concrete steps to protect civilian life and minimize material losses to civilians caught in the middle of the Turkey-PKK conflict. Co-author and researcher Rosemary Youhana stated, “Documenting the impact of Turkey’s strikes on Assyrian villages in northern Iraq is what drove the API to prepare this report, but highlighting the need for regional, national, and international intervention is equally as important. We hope that this report paints a sobering picture of the Turkey-PKK conflict and how it affects civilian life in the region for all groups.

The ongoing Turkey-PKK conflict must be seen both within the microcosm of regional geopolitics and within the context of heightening risks for threatened groups like Assyrians. While the Turkey-PKK negatively affects various communities in the region, it is important to recognize the unique threats posed to vulnerable peoples such as Assyrians who presently face an existential crisis. Thus, the report focuses almost exclusively on the situation for the Assyrian people in the context of the Turkey-PKK conflict in northern Iraq, and conveys recommendations drafted out of concern for their existential security. The report is available for download here.

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This publication was made possible through the support of the Assyrian National Council of Illinois. The Assyrian Policy Institute is grateful to its donors Dr. John Michael, Tony S. Kalogerakos, Atornia Zomaya, Matt Fakhoury, Aladin Khamis, Abe Yousif, Robert and Victoria Kaprelian, Manny Goriel, Dr. Edison Ishaya, and Dr. Dennis Gelyana. The contents of this report are the responsibility of the Assyrian Policy Institute and do not necessarily reflect the position of the above-named organizations and individuals.


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