- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Officials in the embattled Iraqi Kurdistan region have agreed to establish a series of “safe zones” along northern Iraq’s borders with Turkey, designed to prevent Kurdish separatists from crossing back and forth between the two nations.

The zones will specifically target armed factions of the Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK. The Kurdish separatist group, which is responsible for numerous bombings and attacks inside Turkey, has routinely used Iraqi Kurdistan as a staging base for cross border strikes Ankara claims.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the PKK’s main armed wing has been a key ally in the U.S.-led coalition to battle Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Once established, the safe zones will be closed to all Iraqi and Turkish civilians attempting to cross, officials tell the Daily Sabah. Individuals who attempt to traverse the safe zones into either country will be designated as terrorists, reports state.

Erbil’s decision to establish the new safe zones come as Kurdistan Regional Government attempts to repair fractured ties with Turkey and other regional powers, damaged in the aftermath of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum last year. While Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly approved the referendum, which theoretically laid the groundwork for an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, the move was widely condemned by Ankara, Baghdad and its allies — including the United States.

Since the referendum vote, Baghdad has retaken wide swaths of formerly ISIS-held territory in northern Iraq, liberated by Kurdish peshmerga and under Erbil’s control. With the help of Iranian-backed Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Iraqi troops quickly recaptured the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and the strategically key region of Sinjar from Kurdish control.

Commercial airspace in Iraqi Kurdistan remains closed to air traffic and the region’s financial institutions remain frozen under orders from Baghdad. Should the new zones curry much needed political favor with Ankara, Erbil could leverage that support to spur talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government to break the impasse between Baghdad and Erbil.

Erbil has offered “unconditional dialogue” with the Abadi regime and agreed to suspend the results of the September independence referendum, in the hopes of starting a dialogue with the Abadi regime, Kurdish Regional Government Representative to the U.S. Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman told the Washington Times in November.

“At the end of the day, Erbil and Baghdad need to sit down and discuss all of the outstanding issues that have been there all along… “If there is a willingness for dialogue, we have opened the way,” Mrs. Rahman said at the time.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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