Turkish military digs deeper into Iraqi Kurdistan

Turkey’s latest cross-border operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraqi Kurdistan is the latest phase of a multi-year campaign into that region, throughout which Turkey has been expanding its network of military bases and positions there. 

Turkey launched Operation Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt against the PKK on April 23. They are the successor operations to Operation Claw-Eagle and Claw-Tiger launched last year. 

As with its predecessors, Claw Lightning and Thunderbolt have consisted of air and drone strikes as well as commando raids against PKK targets. 

In recent years, Turkey has expanded its network of bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, which have been there in smaller numbers since the 1990s. While the Turkish military had long maintained bases in the Duhok province, it expanded this network to include parts of Erbil province for the first time in 2018. It is estimated that the Turkish military maintains approximately 40 bases and positions within the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan. And it wants to increase that number. 

In late April, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced Turkey’s plan to establish a new base in the mountainous area of Metina near the Turkish border. The very next day, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar visited Turkish troops based in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

“The expansion of Turkish presence has continued at a faster pace,” Abdulla Hawez, a Kurdish affairs analyst, told Ahval. “Since last year, Turkish operations and expansions have mostly concentrated in Duhok: in each of north Zakho and north Amedi districts. Turkey is also present in the northern parts of Bradost region in Erbil.”

The latest Turkish military expansion into the Metina region, particularly the Kesta mountain that overlooks a strategic area, will further reduce the PKK’s ability to cross back and forth over Turkey’s southern border. 

“This trend will continue. The danger now is that once Turkey controls the border areas in eternity, it will push further south - perhaps next year - to Gara and Qandil mountains, which are deep inside Iraqi Kurdish territory,” Hawez said. 

Soylu’s recent announcement about the new base in Metina and Akar’s subsequent visit to troops in that region - which he did without consulting either central Iraqi officials or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) - are signs of an “emboldened” Turkey. Hawez believes Turkey is taking advantage of Iraq’s incumbent prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s intentions to improve ties with Ankara “regardless of the situation in the north and in addition to the fact that Turkey has two very important cards against Iraq: water and KRG oil.” 

In recent years, Turkey’s extensive cross-border operations into Iraqi Kurdistan and the establishment of new military bases in that autonomous region appear to have decreased the PKK’s ability to mount operations in Kurdish-majority southeast Turkey. 

“I think it would be accurate to say that the Turkish state has managed to contain the PKK insurgency within the boundaries of Turkey since 2017,” Güneş Murat Tezcür, Jalal Talabani Chair and Professor at the University of Central Florida, told Ahval. “This containment is most conspicuously reflected in the diminished ability of the PKK to stage attacks in the country.” 

Turkey’s operations in these recent years have put the PKK on the defensive. Tezcür also pointed out that the weakness of the Iraqi government and KRG’s leading Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) dependency on Turkey, along with its antagonistic relationship with the PKK, leaves the Turkish military with few political obstacles in the way of targeting PKK bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

“As long as this correlation of forces and geopolitical balance persists, the expansive Turkish presence in the region would persist,” he said. 

However, Tezcür also posited that the ongoing conflict should be separate from two broader issues: the defeat of the PKK as an insurgent movement and the Kurdish question in Turkey. 

“From a comparative perspective, an incumbent state is able to defeat an insurgency when it manages to suspend its supply of recruits and finances, cut its external support networks (e.g., diaspora and foreign states), destroy its extraterritorial bases, and establish overwhelming military superiority,” he said. 

In this case, none of these factors has happened, with the partial exception of the last one.

“Besides, there has been no progress regarding the much complicated and broader issue of the Kurdish question,” Tezcür said. “In fact, recent developments indicate significant regression in that regard.” 

According to Hawez, this latest expansion of Turkey’s bases in Iraqi Kurdistan is significant. He predicts that it will drastically weaken the PKK’s cross-border movement and pointing out that the Turkish military has already located important PKK tunnels and other infrastructure. 

“I anticipate Turkey to not only stay in the area indefinitely, but their presence will only expand,” he said.