Turkey may finally act on threats against PKK in Qandil

Turkish officials are once more reiterating their threats to storm Qandil Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan to remove the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Turkey routinely makes such threats against the PKK main stronghold in Iraq. This time, however, given its newly established military positions in the region following a latest offensive that began in March, Ankara might actually try and live up to its threats and rhetoric.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared that Turkey can attack the mountain “at any moment one evening.”

“Qandil is not a distant target for us anymore,” Turkey's Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu also declared. "Right now, a lot of positions have been seized there [by Turkey], especially in the northern Iraq region.”

“Timing is what is important for us right now… Qandil will be made a safe place for Turkey, no one should doubt that,” Soylu added.

Aaron Stein, a Senior Resident Fellow at The Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, told Ahval he takes such statements seriously.

“They keep telling the world they intend to clear Qandil, so I assume they will try and clear Qandil,” Stein reasoned. “The operation, thus far, appear centered on cutting off Qandil from other PKK strongholds. However, I don’t know what this actually means and how one defines territorial control in mountainous terrain.”

The PKK, which usually dismisses such threats or challenges from Turkey to attack, has also acknowledged the possibility of a large-scale operation. Bahoz Erdal, a senior PKK leader, told the Saudi Okaz newspaper that the group expects “a hot summer with Turkey”.

Furthermore, the PKK-affiliated Kurdistan National Congress (KNK) released a statement on ANF News in which it said: “There are increasing signs of an imminent full-scale invasion of Iraqi Kurdish territory, including the mountainous Qandil region of northern Iraq, in an attempt to further encircle and strangle the only place of freedom in the region.”

Since launching its current ground incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan in March, Turkey has moved 27 kilometers into the autonomous Kurdish region, seizing control of villages hitherto controlled by the PKK for decades. On at least one occasion, villagers in the region refused to cooperate with Turkish troops.

While Turkey has a relatively small number of troops in these regions, the ground incursion is nevertheless significant, especially since it is setting up bases there, which signals that a larger operation may be on the cards. In the late 1990's, the Turkish Army, using at least 30,000 troops, tried to destroy the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan but failed. For years, the Turkish air force has targeted the mountain range but has failed to dislodge the PKK.

It is unclear if a large-scale ground operation into Qandil is imminent. However, Ankara may go further than it has in years to disrupt the group's activities there .

The PKK estimates that the operation is not just a political ploy by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but it may nevertheless win him more votes in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24.

“Erdogan has shown the past few months, particularly with the invasion of Afrin and threats to Sinjar, that he is serious about dismantling as much of the PKK structures in Syria and Iraq as possible,” Aliza Marcus, a Washington DC-based analyst on Kurdish and Turkish affairs and author of the groundbreaking book 'Blood and Belief', told Ahval. “Qandil, obviously, is the big prize. Of course, right before elections, Turkish military action against the PKK anywhere can be a vote winner for AKP, but that's also assuming the action is successful.”

Marcus doesn't believe the current threats against the stronghold “are timed for the elections” but adds that “there is no doubt that the bellicose approach will help Erdogan with some votes.

“While Turkey may launch an operation, without Iranian support, to squeeze the PKK from the other side, there's little chance Turkey can take Qandil, and the Turkish military knows this,” she said. “What seems more likely is Turkey will seek some sort of limited operation that it can portray as a win, without actually dislodging the PKK.”

Turkey claimed last year that Iran had agreed to coordinate operations with it against the PKK. Indeed, Turkish airstrikes have targeted areas in Iraqi Kurdistan's Sulaimani province where the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), the group which has fought Iran in the past, has locations.  

“During the trilateral meetings of Iran, Iraq and Turkey is was obvious that Iran and Iraq's offer to Turkey to prevent the formation of a Kurdish state (after the September 25 independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan) in Iraqi Kurdistan was letting Ankara target the PKK anywhere it wants in northern Iraq,” said Lawk Ghafuri, a Kurdish political writer.

It's also been speculated that Iran will help Turkey achieve its goals against the PKK in light of rumours that the Trump administration is supporting anti-Iran Kurdish groups.

Güneş Murat Tezcür, head of the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies at the University of Central Florida, doesn't “see the logic of a systematic Iranian cooperation with Turkey” in this campaign. Tezcür notes that PJAK has not engaged in serious fighting against Iran since the ceasefire in 2011 and "both PJAK and the PKK continue to attract sizeable numbers of Kurds who end up fighting against the jihadists in Syria and the Turkish army, not the Iranian state.

“It is not necessarily in the best interests of both parties, PKK/PJAK and Iran, to upend this modus vivendi,” Tezcür said.

He also doubts that the Trump administration is supporting any Kurdish groups in Iran.

“PAK (Kurdistan Freedom Party) of Yazdanpanah received direct Western assistance; KDP-I (Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran) made feeble attempts to reignite armed struggle in Iran in the last two years,” he said. “Yet the KRG, especially the Barzani government, would be very hesitant to allow significant anti-Iranian activity by these groups.

“Iran would not prefer having the Turkish army occupying large amounts of territory just across the border for an indefinite period of time,” he said.

This month, Erdogan also threatened to establish a refugee camp in the Makhmour region in Iraq, where 12,000 Kurds who fled Turkey's onslaughts in the 1990s reside, claiming Qandil “is fed from” Makhmour. The PKK established an armed force in the area called the Makhmour Protection Units to protect Kurds from ISIS, which had attacked the area in 2014. Despite the PKK's withdrawal from Sinjar earlier this year, Erdogan insists that the Yezidi region “is a small Qandil.”

Sinjar is a strategically important region for whoever controls it since it sits near the borders with both Turkey and Syria. Ihan Uzgel, a professor of international relations at Ankara University, told Xinhua News that, as a consequence, “Qandil is no longer as important for the PKK as it used to be.”

Ghafuri said it would not be surprising if the PKK “have more troops in Sinjar than Qandil, as Sinjar is more strategic and Turkey, by invading Sinjar, would control the border gate between Rojava and the KRG.”

Iraq analyst Joel Wing, author of the Musings on Iraq blog, points out that the PKK still retains elements in Sinjar – most notably the Yezidi Sinjar Protection Units (YBS) armed group. Wing told Ahval that “Turkey can't reach the area so it issues these statements to try and intimidate the group, and threaten intervention even though it can't.”

Tezcür still maintains that despite the advantageous position that having a foothold in Sinjar represents “it is clear that Qandil has much more strategic importance for the PKK than Sinjar.

“The former has been the main base of the PKK for two decades, provides feasible access to Turkey via mountainous roads, and has many geographical (and political) characteristics making direct Turkish control for a long period unfeasible,” he said. “Without Qandil, the very survival of the PKK as a robust insurgency between 1999 and 2013 would have been in doubt.”

Comparing this to Sinjar, he points out that while that region is “closer to the Turkish border” it “does not have similar advantages.

“It is basically a novam terram for the PKK that has had significant presence there only since 2014 (as an extention of Rojava),” he said.

By consolidating the territory it has seized since March, on which it has already established at least 11 bases, Turkey seems to be incrementally cutting off PKK lines of operation and resupply to hinder its movements and gradually strangle it.

Michael Knights, a noted Iraq expert and Lafer Fellow at The Washington Institute, anticipates a more limited operation in Qandil.

“My gut is that they are trying to get UAV [unmanned aerial vehicles] bases and artillery nearby but won't try to physically occupy the Qandil redoubt,” Knights told Ahval. “They want to make life miserable for any PKK on the mountain in the hopes that they will scatter and relocate to less defensible locations.”

Some commentators in Turkey also foresee such a gradual operation unfolding.

“The big operation has not been launched yet,” wrote Hurriyet columnist Abdulkadir Selvi on June 8. “This is just the groundwork. A big operation is being prepared for Qandil.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.