The Kurdish Qandil Mountains

6 MINS READMar 28, 2013 | 10:30 GMT

The Qandil Mountains, stretching from the Kurdish region of Iraq over the border with Iran, have been a haven for the Kurdistan Workers' Party, more commonly known as the PKK, over the past few decades. The complex terrain and the autonomy of the northern Iraqi Kurdish region make the mountains a suitable rear basing area for the Kurdish rebels.

The Qandil mountain range is the northwestern part of the larger Zagros mountain system that shapes Iran's western border with Iraq. While most of the Qandil Mountains are in Iran, the southwestern flank of the range, which consists of several ridges and valleys, extends into northeastern Iraq toward Lake Dukan. Kurdish militants use this part of the range as a basing area. The distance from the fronts where Kurdish militants fight has made this region a haven to several thousands of rebels, and more may settle there in the future.

Map of Qandil Mountains

Map of Qandil Mountains

The Taurus Mountains and the Zagros Mountains, including the Qandil range, cover parts of northeastern Syria, southern Turkey, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran. This vast area of broken terrain is easily defensible and restricts the movement of opposing forces, similar to the Tigharghar Mountains in Mali. The peaks of the Qandil Mountains in Iraq and the plateaus between them are covered in snow most of the year. Cheekha Dar, the highest peak, is 3,611 meters (11,847 feet) high. The broken terrain is overlaid by multiple international boundaries of states that do not necessarily cooperate or have the ability to control the region. This geography, combined with the presence of the homogenous Kurdish ethnic group, allows the PKK to defend itself in multiple ways. Moreover, the geography creates safe training grounds and concealed routes through the area that let the rebels project force and smuggle goods.

In the mountains, rocky terrain covers steep hillsides, and deciduous forests cover the mountains at higher altitudes. This complex terrain also limits mobility. During the 1980s, Saddam Hussein built a road network in an attempt to achieve more control over the area that cars are able to navigate. But Kurdish rebels in bases farther up the mountains than the roads can reach depend on horses and mules to transport provisions and food to their bases.

Kurds have sought refuge in the Qandil Mountains since the days of the Ottoman Empire. More recently, before PKK fighters came to seek refuge in these mountains, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces of northern Iraq sought the mountains' shelter during Saddam Hussein's anti-Kurdish campaigns. At that time, the PKK had settled in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and were supported by Syria. PKK forces initially arrived in the mountains when, after the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi Patriotic Union of Kurdistan elements abandoned the mountains. Following PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan's arrest in 1999, the rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire, which caused many more fighters to relocate to the Qandil Mountains. Another wave of relocations followed in 2000 when Syria formally ended its support for the organization.

The Qandil Mountains region is removed from main population and power centers, thus granting a degree of autonomy to the PKK. The Kurdish militants are scattered across the region, living in many separate camps and outposts. Because the PKK avoids concentrating forces, it is difficult for opponents to target the Kurdish fighters with airstrikes or artillery bombardments, but it also strains PKK resources to support scattered camps and positions. The PKK controls checkpoints at the entrances to the mountains to keep opposing forces out, aided by the restrictive terrain. The Kurdish rebels' base camps are well established and made of permanent buildings. Targeting these has been a challenge for the Turkish air force, which has hit several villages in the area that are difficult to distinguish from the militant bases. This human terrain is important cover for the Kurdish fighters and forces Turkey to risk diplomatic fallout to conduct airstrikes in the area.

The PKK fighters use the caves in the mountains for cover and concealment as well as constructed subterranean bases with small camouflaged entrances leading to several underground rooms. The Kurdish fighters have not used improvised explosive devices or landmines across the region, as have many militant groups in similar regions, but in the case of a ground invasion, Kurdish fighters have the knowledge necessary to effectively deploy mines and other explosive devices. There have been reports of cliffs rigged with explosives to trigger rockfalls in the event of an incursion into the mountains by a hostile force.

The restrictive mountain terrain also has an impact on the PKK's ability to communicate within the group as well as with the outside world. While the PKK groups in the mountains use shortwave radios and satellite phones, much communication is done in person by traveling to outposts. As far as communication beyond the mountains is concerned, Korek Telecom, the main Kurdish cell phone operator, provides weak cell phone coverage in some areas of the mountains. Internet access depends completely on satellite uplinks.

Since the beginning of the PKK presence in the mountains, Iran and Turkey have regularly attacked the Kurdish militants with artillery bombardments and airstrikes. An unofficial agreement between Iran and the PKK ended Iran's offensive actions in 2011, but Turkey has continued to stage airstrikes in the Qandil Mountains. A new cease-fire between Turkey and the PKK may end these offensive operations but could also lead to a phased withdrawal and the relocation of about 4,000 rebels south into the Qandil Mountains, away from the frontline in Turkey.

This means that the PKK presence in these mountains could increase rapidly in the future, but potential amnesty deals for low-level fighters could allow many to relocate to Europe or even Australia. The PKK's presence in the mountains provides some security to the Kurdish Regional Government by making sure the region cannot become home to jihadist elements that are seen as more of a threat.

While these mountains are in Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region, which is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government, the local government has officially isolated the militants with an embargo. In reality, however, the government allows the rebels to stay in the Qandil Mountains, where the PKK controls villages and has even organized a local justice system, essentially operating the mountains as a separate state. PKK fighters refer to it as Hareme Media. This so-called state depends on food and provisions smuggled into the area from across the border with Iran or from Raniya in Iraq.

Today, Peshmerga forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government control positions around the Qandil Mountains but do not venture into the mountains with the intent of dislodging the Kurdish militants. In the same manner, PKK elements avoid causing trouble with the local government by not carrying arms outside of the mountains or confronting government forces. Though the complex relationships between the PKK and Peshmerga and Turkish forces have changed over time, the situation in the Qandil Mountains has remained fairly stable.

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