Turkish military in for the long haul in Iraqi Kurdistan

Turkey launched its longest continuous military operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraqi Kurdistan this year. Operation Claw began last May, is presently in its third phase, and shows no sign of let-up. This, along with the new forward operating bases it has built in the Kurdish region since last year, indicates that Turkey is hunkering down in Iraqi Kurdistan for the long-term. 

In recent weeks there have also been some notable activity in Turkey’s campaign. In five days in the first week of November, Turkey carried out no fewer than five operations targeting the PKK, primarily using air and artillery strikes. 

The Turkish military has also continued targeted raids against the PKK using armed drones. 

On Oct. 24 a Turkish airstrike in the Gara region near Amedi and killed two senior female PKK members. On Oct. 15, a Turkish drone strike also killed two senior members of the KCK, a PKK-linked umbrella group, at a tourist location on Mount Azmar near the city of Sulaimani. 

Turkey first proved it could carry out targeted assassinations from the air when it hit the convoy of Zaki Shingali in Sinjar and killed him in August 2018. Then, on March 21, a Turkish air strike killed five PKK officials, including Serhat Varto. On July 7, the Turkish military also assassinated Diyar Ghareeb, a senior PKK official in Qandil Mountain – the group’s main base in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

While Operation Claw is not the largest Turkish military campaign against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, it is the longest single operation to date and is in many ways somewhat more decisive than its previous cross-border campaigns. 

Güneş Murat Tezcür, head of the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies at the University of Central Florida, pointed out that while the operations Turkey carried out in the mid-1990s “were more intense affairs involving much larger numbers of troops, they were shorter in terms of duration compared to the current operation.” 

In 1995 and 1997, Turkey launched three major large-scale ground offensives against the PKK – called Steel, Hammer and Dawn respectively – that involved tens-of-thousands of Turkish troops. None of those operations lasted more than two months. Claw, on the other hand, has been ongoing since May 28. 

Tezcür said there were two main factors that explain the differences. The first being the “evolving nature of the warfare between the Turkish Armed Forces and the PKK, involving more sophisticated technology and smaller and more mobile and professional units.” 

The second factor he identified was “the changing nature of the threat perception of the Turkish government after the formation of the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria”, an area Syrian Kurds call Rojava.

“Basically, the Turkish government aims to put the PKK on the defensive and complicate the Qandil-Rojava linkage,” Tezcür said. 

Abdulla Hawez, a Kurdish affairs analyst, said that, aside from the aforementioned offensives waged in the 1990s, “there is no precedent for such a wide-ranging Turkish military operation against PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.” 

“I think this military operation is probably the most serious operation against PKK inside Iraqi Kurdistan to date and it will likely hinder PKK movement into Turkish Kurdistan and militarily weaken the movement,” Hawez said. 

“But this operation might be too late given PKK’s widespread presence throughout the four parts of Kurdistan and PKK’s growing political influence.”

Hawez said the present operation would likely to be long-term. He said that while Turkey has had military bases in the autonomous region since the 1990s “what makes it different this time is that Turkey will have military bases, observation points and outposts throughout its border with Iraqi Kurdistan and will likely weaken PKK movement in the region.” 

“The new Turkish bases in both Dohuk and Erbil provinces and building of roads indicate Turkey is going to stay long term to effectively cut the PKK’s movement in Turkey-Iraq-Syria,” he said. 

Hawez also echoed Tezcür’s assessment when he pointed out that the Turkish military had a better military and intelligence capability today “compared to earlier operations and this is visibly felt in the case of the number of senior PKK members killed in the last several months. 

“Having said that, the PKK has proven capable of adapting and renewing itself, so it remains to be seen if the more advanced Turkish weapons and better intelligence can cripple PKK’s capabilities long term,” he said.

Tezcür said Turkey might try to expand its long-term military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan “further in an aim to limit the mobility enjoyed by the PKK units in rugged terrain just south of the border. This obviously hampers the ability of PKK militants to stage lethal and effective attacks within Turkey,” he said. 

“However, the situation is unlikely to evolve into Turkish hegemony over the region, not to mention Turkish control over Qandil.” 

Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said Turkey was “preparing an expanded and long-term presence in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, likely to establish northern Iraq as an indefinite base for operations against the PKK.” 

“The reality is that Turkey has long sought to use Iraqi Kurdistan as a springboard for greater influence in Iraq, especially in areas such as Mosul and Kirkuk where there’s a large Turkmen community,” Heras said. 

He said Turkish military leaders had a “clear vision that Iraqi Kurdistan is not only a useful site to stage operations against the PKK, but it is also a place where Turkey’s economic power and increasingly its military power can be used to shape events in the Kurdish regions outside of Turkish territory.” 

Heras said a big question for the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan was “whether they are prepared for Turkey to have a larger and enduring military presence on their territory, and what consequences that will have for the larger relationship with Baghdad.” 

“Iraqi Kurdistan is being primed as a future site of contestation between Ankara and Baghdad,” he said. 

© Ahval English

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.