Turkey intensifies military operations in Northern Iraq

Turkey is intensifying its military presence in northern Iraq in the run up to elections, scheduled for 24th June, wrote journalist Menekse Tokyay in an article for the The Arab Weekly on Sunday.

Turkish commandos have recently moved about 20km into Iraq’s Duhok and Erbil provinces, controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), according to local media reports quoted by Tokyay.

The moves aim to counter the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for self-rule in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish south-east since 1984 and which has a strong presence in the region.

Turkey, says Tokyay, is concerned by PKK advances and the group’s attempts to establish cantons in Iraq’s Sinjar district like those established by Kurds in Syria.

Ankara may even extend its advance as far as the PKK’s main bases in the Qandil Mountains, which straddle the Iran-Iraq border, in its efforts to disrupt the organization.

Such a move would shore up the Turkish government’s support among nationalist voters as elections approach, though would be fraught with difficulties.

“Geographically this is a very difficult region that cannot be compared with the previous military campaigns in Syria. It would be difficult to establish permanent military outposts due to the risk of becoming a target for terror attacks,” Tokyay quoted Bilgay Duman of Turkish thinktank ORSAM as saying.

Any such operation would also require co-operation with with both Iraq and Iran.

In March Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Ankara would conduct ground operations in Iraq only with approval from Baghdad.

“The PKK has invested heavily in the areas bordering Iran and therefore the success of the operation also requires either the consent of the Iranian government or at the least a unilateral decision on the side of the Turkish government that subordinates bilateral relations and hence decisively risks Turkey’s relations with Iran,” said Ahmet Han, an international relations professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.

“Turkey can cut off the supply lines from Qandil to northern Syria,” Han added, “But this move in and of itself would hardly completely eliminate the PKK positions in the region. Turkey is also likely to establish buffer zones to prevent PKK from moving across the borders. What matters in terms of the foreign and security policies of the concerned actors in the Middle East today is no longer long-term strategies or diplomatic overtures and niceties, but creating advantageous de facto situations on the ground. So management of risks in related issues and concerns are of secondary importance. Hence Turkey, if it reaches a decision regarding its relations with Iraq, KRG and Iran, could well take this to be an opportune moment.”

Turkey has long conducted ground and air operations in northern Iraq, justifying them using the internationally recognised concept of “hot pursuit” and agreements between Turkey and Iraq that allow both governments to cross their shared borders while pursuing terror groups.