Is the Turkish-PKK conflict entering a new phase?

Recent data suggests that the conflict between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is entering a new and important phase in light of a marked reduction in the number of clashes in southeast Turkey. Even before Turkey’s latest cross-border operation against the group in Iraqi Kurdistan began in mid-June, the overwhelming majority of clashes between the two adversaries took place in Iraq.

report by research analyst Adam Miller for the Armed Conflict Location & Data Project (ACLED) discovered that a mere 23 percent of engagements between the Turkish military and the PKK took place in southeast Turkey while 77 percent took place in Iraq in the first five months of 2020. Qandil mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan has long been a sanctuary for the PKK in its decades-old conflict with Turkey.

Miller and ACLED’s Middle East research team told Ahval that this, in many ways, fits the “seasonal conflict patterns” observed for years now.

“It is not unusual for clashes between Turkish security forces and the PKK to decline in frequency in late autumn, with few PKK attacks recorded inside Turkey’s borders until early spring,” they said.

Turkish operations against the PKK usually take place in the summer and end by winter, giving the group respite and time to reorganise.

That pattern has changed in recent years as Turkey continues to mount operations against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan into winter, hindering the group’s ability to re-launch their campaigns in Turkey the following spring.

The Turkish armed forces are also maintaining an increasing number of forward operating bases and intelligence networks in Iraqi Kurdistan. In its latest ongoing Claw-Eagle operation, launched in mid-June, Turkey increased the number of military bases it maintains in Iraqi Kurdistan from 24 to 36 in a mere two weeks.

“Anecdotal reports suggest that PKK attacks on Turkish forces appear to have decreased during the analysed period, while Turkish attacks against the PKK have driven the overall rise in engagements; further analysis is required to confirm these trends,” the ACLED analysts said.

They note that this could either be another seasonal trend, in which case the PKK will resume operations in Turkey in the coming months, or an indication that Turkish security operations have succeeded in weakening the PKK, at least inside Turkey.

Compared with this time last year, there has “been a significant shift in engagements to Iraq,” the analysts said.

That being said, the analysts believe that it’s crucial to see what happens in the coming summer months when clashes typically take place “more equally in Iraq and Turkey”.

Güneş Murat Tezcür, the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies at the University of Central Florida, also believes that the capability of the PKK to carry out attacks in Turkey has diminished since 2017.

Tezcür attributed this to several factors from the improvement of Turkey’s military technology to geopolitical developments.

“As Turkey has developed its airpower, in particular drones, it has limited the conventional advantage of PKK militants enjoyed in rugged rural areas,” he told Ahval.

Also, Turkey’s campaign against the PKK, and its Syrian branch or offshoot the Democratic Union Party (PYD), “moved primarily across Turkey’s southern borders since the Turkish incursion into [the northwestern Syrian Kurdish enclave] Afrin in early 2018” and the offensive in northeastern Syria in October 2019.

Turkish operations in Iraq and Syria also aim to prevent cross-border PKK movements between those two countries and Turkey.

“Consequently, yes, we can talk about a new phase in the Turkish-PKK conflict which primarily takes place across the Turkish borders since 2017, the end of the PKK’s urban strategy,” he added.

While Turkey’s strategy has succeeded in limiting PKK attacks in Turkey, Tezcür doubts it can dislodge either the PKK from Qandil or the PYD from northeast Syria.

ACLED’s analysts also believe that it can be reasonably argued that Turkish forces have successfully cemented their control over urban areas in southeast Turkey, following brutal urban battles with the PKK in 2015-16, since almost no PKK attacks were reported from those areas in recent years.

The sharp decline in the number of attacks can be interpreted as a success for Turkey since “there is no clear alternative explanation for the comparatively low number of clashes in Turkey such as a ceasefire or explicit PKK prioritisation of activity in Iraq”.

“Nevertheless, Turkish operations may not be the only factor motivating this trend,” they said. “More data and analysis is needed to determine a direct causal mechanism between the operations of 2015-2016, the alleged weakening of PKK, and the reduced number of clashes.”

“It remains to be seen if current trends hold throughout the summer months when PKK activity typically picks up.”

A team of analysts from BlueMelange, an Ankara-based independent research group focused on geopolitical developments on Turkey’s hinterland, said that Ankara’s latest cross-border operation “is not a simple campaign”.

The different stages they anticipate this ongoing operation taking include incursions into northern parts of Iraqi Kurdistan “and the establishment of several Forward Area Control Posts at depths ranging from 5-20 kilometres deep in that region,” the analysts told Ahval.

Turkey’s armed Bayraktar TB2 and Anka-S drones, they added, will also carry out 24/7 “precision strikes and assassinations”. At the same time, Turkish F-16 and F-4 jet fighter bombers will target “three important PKK bases: Sinjar, Makhmour and Qandil.”

“Northern parts of Iraqi Kurdistan are totally open for the Turkish armed forces to crush PKK lines, stores, supply routes and cut off interconnections between those three important above-mentioned important bases,” they said. “This latest Claw-Tiger operation is a more complex and robust effort to clear all the path to and from Qandil.”

The researchers also forecast that the Turkish military will establish a “de facto security zone up to 20 km in depth where military systems and experienced commandos will be deployed”.

“This zone will be based for next phases and steps towards Sinjar, Makhmour and Qandil,” they said.

The primary objective of the present operation appears to be cutting the “Sinjar-Haftanin, Haftanin-Makhmour and Haftanin-Qandil interconnections”.

Then, Turkey will move to apply pressure on the border regions between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan as well as Iraqi Kurdistan and the Syrian Kurdish regions to further restrict the PKK movements between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.