Turkish offensive in north Iraq extends beyond usual anti-PKK campaign - analysts

Turkey’s air and ground offensives into neighbouring northern Iraq extend beyond Ankara’s usual operations against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Reuters reported on Wednesday, citing analysts.

On June 17 Turkey launched Operation Claw-Tiger, a cross-border ground assault targeting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in various regions of northern Iraq in response to an increase in attacks against Turkish military forces.

Reuters cited a Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, who said the operation has seen Turkish troops advance up to 40 km inside Iraq and establish over 30 “temporary bases”.

The military campaign’s objective is to rout PKK fighters near the Turkish-Iraqi border, cut the group’s supply lines between Iraq and Syria – where it also operates in – and set the ground for a possible assault on the main PKK stronghold around Iraq’s Qandil mountains, Reuters cited a second unnamed Turkish official as saying.

“The operation in Iraq aims to secure Turkey’s border, prevent the passage (of PKK fighters) to Syria, and from there infiltration to Turkey,” the Turkish official said. “When the time comes, (targeting) Qandil will be evaluated.”

The PKK, designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and European Union, has been fighting an insurgency against the Turkish state for four decades.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, including 7,918 members of Turkey’s security forces, 5,557 civilians and 22,101 PKK members between 1981 and 2012, according to a report by Turkish parliament.

International Crisis Group (ICG) Turkey analyst Berkay Mandiraci told Reuters that unlike previous operations against the PKK, Turkey’s success in utilising combat drones could turn the tide this time.

“The use of drone technology appears to have significantly shifted the balance of power on the ground, allowing Turkish forces to go after militants in areas previously difficult to penetrate,” Mandiraci said.

Turkey’s indigenous Bayraktar TB-2 combat drone has been lauded for achieving the country’s military goals in Syria and Libya.

Bilal Wahab of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said though Baghdad condemned Turkey’s operation on its home soil, there was little the Iraqi government could do in response.

“Ultimately these things require some level of respect for Iraq’s sovereignty and some sort of power,” Wahab told Reuters. “On both counts, Iraq has become so weak that it’s hard to demand that kind of respect from anyone.”

The Iraqi government focused its attention on political infighting, an economic crisis, and its own relations with the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north have often been shaky – especially when Baghdad’s forces halted a Kurdish bid for independence in 2017.

“From the Baghdad point of view ... the (Turkish) incursion is headed for the KRG, so there’s little harm in this,” Wahab said.

A KRG official told Reuters: “Baghdad has been very quiet and we are forced to be very quiet, otherwise we run the risk of escalation with Turkey.”