Turkey’s muscle-flexing in Iraq sends message to regional foes, scholar says

Turkey’s muscle-flexing through an air campaign in northern Iraq is a clear message to countries which oppose its policies in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, foreign policy analyst Ali Demirdaş wrote in the National Interest on Monday.

In June, Turkey launched air operation “Claw-Eagle”, along with a parallel cross-border ground operation dubbed “Claw-Tiger”, to target the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in various regions of northern Iraq’s mountainous Qandil range in response to an increase in attacks against Turkish military forces at home.

Operation Claw-Eagle signals the readiness of Turkey’s military and intelligence arms to handle threats, Demirdaş wrote.

“The combination of intelligence gathering, the ability of unmanned aircraft to pinpoint and the use of Air Force have resulted in the killing of prominent PKK executive council members, (…) severely crippling the organisation’s decision-making process,” he said.

Turkey regularly targets PKK – an armed group designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and European Union – in operations in northern Iraq and on home soil.

However, Demirdaş drew attention to the differences between Operation Claw-Eagle and previous campaigns, saying that such assassinations of top PKK officials reveal that “Turkey’s military operations have been pushing the PKK top echelon deeper south away from the Turkish border”.

The analyst wrote that Turkey improved intelligence-processing coordination between its security apparatuses – intelligence, military and police – after the country shifted to a presidential system in 2018. Under the new system, the National Intelligence Agency (MİT) came under the jurisdiction of the president, which allowed it to acquire authorisation to conduct external operations.

“This harmonisation has been proven effective,” Demirdaş said.

“Turkey began to neutralize top PKK executive cadres not only deep inside northern Iraq, particularly in the famous PKK headquarters at the Qandil Mountains, but also in northern Syria, where PKK’s offshoot, the YPG, (the People’s Protection Unit) aims to create autonomy.”

The Kurdish-majority YPG militia has played a vital role in the U.S.-led coalition’s ground operations against the Islamic State (ISIS) militant group. However, Turkey views the YPG as an extension of the PKK – thus a threat to national security – and has conducted three campaigns into Syria to rout the group south from the Turkish-Syrian border region.

“Many in Ankara are convinced that the United States has been working to unite the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds under the PKK umbrella forming an independent hostile state across its southern border spanning from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea,“ Demirdaş said.

“In this regard, Operation Claw-Eagle also aims to disrupt the creation of such an entity mainly by hindering the flow of militia and weaponry from north Iraq to the Syrian YPG,” the analyst wrote.