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Who is the new militant group targeting a Turkish base with drones? - analysis

Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) advance towards the city of Al-Qaim, Iraq November 3, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)
Shi'ite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) advance towards the city of Al-Qaim, Iraq November 3, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)

The creation of a new “group” called Ahrar Sinjar may be an excuse to strike Turkey now, alleging to be responding to other Turkish attacks.

A group calling itself Ahrar Sinjar claimed to carry out a drone attack on a Turkish base in northern Iraq on Sunday. According to Iranian media, the attack targeted a Turkish base at Bashiqa, east of Mosul, and involved “six kamikaze drones.” Other reports said four drones were used and that one struck the base.

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The Zilkan base - the crown jewel

The Turkish base, sometimes called the Zilkan base, is located on the borders of the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq and areas of Nineveh province that are governed by Iraqi federal forces. It includes Shi’ite militias and other pro-Iranian groups like the Hashd al-Shaabi Brigade 30 of Shebek minorities.

The Hashd, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), is a large umbrella group of militias, many of which are Shi’ite and pro-Iran. Since 2018 they have been organized as an official paramilitary force and they maintain checkpoints in some areas of Iraq. Many of these groups are either directly linked to Iran, like Kataib Hezbollah, or are territorial and minority brigades that secure areas where the Iraqi army is weak. In that context, they can easily fire rockets at US forces or Turkey or Erbil from areas such as the Nineveh plains east of Mosul.  

The Turkey base that was targeted near Bashiqa was previously used to support Iraqis who had fled Mosul during the ISIS war. It was considered increasingly controversial by pro-Iran politicians in Baghdad who viewed it as a symbol of Turkish encroachment into Iraq.

 A group of Iranian Kurdish women, who have joined Kurdish peshmerga fighters, take part in a training session in a military camp in Erbil, Iraq July 9, 2019.  (credit: REUTERS/AKO RASHEED)A group of Iranian Kurdish women, who have joined Kurdish peshmerga fighters, take part in a training session in a military camp in Erbil, Iraq July 9, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/AKO RASHEED)

Turkey vs. PKK fights play out at military bases

Turkey has a dozen bases and outposts in the mountains of northern Iraq often that is confined to the border region where Turkey claims to be fighting “PKK terrorists.” However, in recent years, Turkey has launched new operations in this mountainous area and has penetrated deeper into northern Iraq, closer to the Kurdish cities of Dohuk and Erbil.

Turkey also uses drones and warplanes to strike at areas in Sinjar and Makhmour. Sinjar is where Yazidis live, people who suffered the ISIS genocide. Makhmour is not far from Kirkuk and is an area where there is a refugee camp for Kurds. Turkey accuses the PKK of having bases in these places, but locals say Ankara has targeted civilians and local activists. 

The same drones in Iraq, Iran and Gaza

 In recent years, the Turkish base at Bashiqa has come under frequent rocket fire that are similar to rocket attacks that have targeted US forces and facilities in Iraq. Usually, the rockets are 107mm rockets fired from trucks. Pro-Iran militias in Iraq have also increasingly resorted to using drones similar to the kamikaze UAVsused by the Houthis and Hamas in Gaza.These have targeted Erbil, US forces at various facilities and even the Prime Minister’s house.  

"We have already warned of the consequences of Turkey's continued invasion of Iraq and its safe havens,” reads a report from Tasnim News. Iranian media has in the past reported on incidents like this when they are linked to pro-Iran groups; they get the press statements directly from the militant groups themselves. Pro-Iran groups in Iraq often create new fake names for themselves in order to create plausible deniability, so that the new “group” cannot be targeted because it may not exist — it may be a stand-in for an existing group.  

"Our operation was carried out in response to the recent aggression on the outskirts of Kirkuk and Dohuk," the statement by the new Ahrar Sinjar group reads. "These drones hit the intended targets with high accuracy, as a result of which the occupiers suffered material and human losses," the group stressed. Tasnim News reported: "Some Iraqi sources say two Turkish soldiers and a Turkish army contractor were killed in the drone strike.” 

Rudaw media, based in Erbil, noted that “a drone on Saturday night targeted a military base housing Turkish troops in northern Iraq, killing one person, as Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) stationed in the Kurdistan Region’s mountains continues.”

This report does not mention six drones and it appears to link the attack to the Turkish conflict with the PKK. “A drone fell on the Turkish base tonight and injured one person who later passed away,” Mohammed Amin, mayor of Zilkan subdistrict, where the base is located, told Rudaw on Saturday. According to Rudaw, the man killed in the attack was a chef at the base who is from the Kurdistan region.  

kamikaze Rotem L drone system, June 26, 2018. (credit: ISRAEL AEROSPACE INDUSTRIES)kamikaze Rotem L drone system, June 26, 2018. (credit: ISRAEL AEROSPACE INDUSTRIES)

What do the people think?

Some posts claimed the attack was in response to Turkish “occupation” and operations in northern Iraq, adding that the attacks would continue. Some of the posters are supporters of Iran and Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq.

One of the posts linked the name of the group to the Yazidi minority in Iraq. Turkish airstrikes have targeted Sinjar where Yazidis live. Some Yazidis are members of the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) which Turkey has attacked in the past.

Ankara claims these groups are linked to the PKK. In the last weeks, there have been clashes between YBS and the Iraqi army. Thousands have fled and some believe that Turkey had encouraged Iraq to pursue these clashes. The Iraqi army moved into Sinjar in October 2017 after the Kurdistan referendum, causing Kurdish Peshmerga to leave.

However, the YBS which had been fighting ISIS remained behind. Some sources at the time said the YBS and other Yazidi factions had decided to work with the Iraqi federal forces and also groups linked to the Hashd al-Shaabi. Turkey has pressured Iraq to expel the PKK from Sinjar while Iraq claimed, several times between 2018 and 2020, that “armed elements” had left Sinjar.

Turkey continued to bomb the area, claiming “terror” threats while also levying threats of invasion. 

Allegations that the Hashd and PKK have coordinated go back several years; in the time after the Iraqi army moved into Sinjar these allegations only grew.

Turkey has even claimed, back in December 2020, that PKK members joined the Hashd. Daily Sabah claimed at the time that “Sinjar District Governor Mahma Halil said Wednesday that there is no sign of withdrawal by terrorists from the northern Iraqi district, as envisaged by the US-backed agreement, adding that they are joining the Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces - PMF) paramilitary group instead.

"[The] majority of PKK terrorists joined Hashd al-Shaabi. A group of terrorists might be infiltrated into Tal Afar and Kirkuk as well,’ Halil said, Turkish daily Yeni Şafak reported.” This suits the pro-government far-right narrative of Ankara, which wants an excuse to invade Sinjar. Days before the drone attack a statement [was] provided to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, also claimed that the “Hashd al-Shaabi supports PKK in Sinjar.” 

The complexity of Sinjar and the latest attack on the Turkish base could be connected. In late 2021 three PMU brigades: 21, 14 and 33, were sent to Sinjar amid tensions with Turkey. These were a Badr brigade, Kataib Sayyid al Shuhada and a third brigade. Another unit of the Hashd has included Yazidis as part of its Lalish regiment for several years, dating back to 2017. 

 Iraqi Yazidis attend a ceremony to celebrate the Yazidi New Year at Lalish temple in Shekhan District in Duhok province, Iraq April 19, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/ARI JALAL)Iraqi Yazidis attend a ceremony to celebrate the Yazidi New Year at Lalish temple in Shekhan District in Duhok province, Iraq April 19, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/ARI JALAL)

What does Iranian media say?

What is interesting about the reports of the attack on the Turkish base is the extent to which Iranian media appears to be highlighting and celebrating the attack.

IRNA in Iran says Turkey is waiting for more attacks, and other reports pointed to the “quality” of the drones. These reports also indicate the “great accuracy” of the drones. The reports imply also that the Ahrar Sinjar statement did not specify the type or number of drones, meaning Iranian media obtained the number via another method.

The implication is Iranian media is backing this campaign. While Kurdish media reported about the PKK-Turkey tensions, Iran’s media highlights the fact that Turkey is occupying northern Iraq, a source of anger in Baghdad for some years.

“The presence of the Turkish army deep in Iraq and the establishment of more than 40 bases on Iraqi soil has aroused great sensitivity in various Iraqi groups, especially the Iraqi resistance groups. To this must be added the almost daily attacks of Turkish helicopters, fighters and drones on northern Iraq, and in particular on Duhok in the Kurdistan Region; Where Turkey claims that the forces of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) are stationed, this has provided an excuse for Ankara to continue its attacks on northern Iraq,” IRNA reported. 

Rockets have been fired at the Bashiqa base in early April and late April, and in January, as well as numerous times before. An April report noted that Turkey had used a drone to target pro-Iran militias.

These increasing rocket attacks and tensions indicate that the base has become a flashpoint. Turkey is also worried about responding directly to pro-Iran elements. The fact that Sinjar has become the site of new clashes between the Iraqi army and Yazidis seems to make it questionable whether Iran would then work with Yazidi groups in Sinjar or PKK affiliates to attack the Turkish base.

What would be the point of Iraq pushing Yazidi groups out of Sinjar, causing 10,000 people to flee, while Iranian militias allied to the same Iraqi government form ties to Yazidi armed groups and provide the technology for drones to be used against the Bashiqa base? More likely the same pro-Iran groups involved in targeting the Bashiqa base in the past used the drones they have used against US forces, Erbil and others, to attack the base.

The creation of a new “group” called Ahrar Sinjar may be the excuse for them to strike at Turkey now, alleging to be responding to other Turkish attacks. That Ankara has mobilized its media to blame the PKK is easier for Ankara than blaming Iran.

Iraq thus becomes a proxy battlefield. Another scenario is that in the wake of the clashes between the Iraqi army and YBS that the Hashd has sought to divert local frustrations with the clashes by working to encourage attacks on the Turkish base. That pro-Iranian social media has celebrated the attack points to an angle that benefits Iran in some way


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