Ankara deepens military incursion in northern Iraq against PKK

If a buffer zone is established, it would not be a “picnic” area and there would be serious security risks that need to be managed.
Sunday 03/06/2018
Turkish soldiers conduct military exercises near the Habur crossing gate between Turkey and Iraq, last September. (AFP)
Mounting concerns. Turkish soldiers conduct military exercises near the Habur crossing gate between Turkey and Iraq, last September. (AFP)

ANKARA - Turkey, preparing for parliamentary and presidential elections, has continued its months-long ground incursion against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.

Operation Tigris Shield began March 10 and is considered the most serious ground operation initiated by Ankara to hinder the PKK in Iraq and Syria and to prevent the group’s cross-border attacks into Turkey.

Ankara is concerned about the PKK advances and the group’s attempts to establish cantons in Iraq’s Sinjar district similar to the model applied by Kurds in Syria.

The PKK, which has fought the Turkish state for more than three decades, is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

In May, PKK militants killed two Turkish soldiers and wounded two others in an attack in northern Iraq.

The Turkish Army said it captured four AT-4 anti-armour missile launchers from the PKK in the Iraqi Kurdish region on May 26, the same day Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that 414 PKK fighters had been killed in Operation Tigris Shield.

Thousands of Turkish commandos advanced about 20km into Duhok and Erbil provinces, part of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), local media reports said. The Turkish Army reportedly established several military control points in the provinces.

Turkish troops could enter PKK strongholds in the Qandil Mountains to consolidate nationalistic votes for the government by maintaining a war footing. Qandil, a mountainous area of Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iraq-Iran border that has been a Kurdish haven since the Ottoman era, has a significant importance in Turkey’s perception of its territorial security, which it accuses the PKK of using to attack Turkey.

Ankara had carried out air strikes against PKK positions in short-term operations but has rarely conducted ground incursions since the mid-1990s.

In a phone call with his Iraqi counterpart Haider al-Abadi, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said in late March that Ankara would conduct ground operations in Iraq only with approval from Baghdad because it respects Iraq’s territorial sovereignty.

Aaron Stein, a senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, said the operation has been politicised ahead of the June 24 elections, but it was rooted in security concerns.

“It does appear Ankara wants to sever the supply lines to Qandil and to cut off infiltration routes from Iraq to Turkey,” he said.

Turkish troops took control of the Syrian Kurdish city of Afrin this year following a military campaign against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, a PKK offshoot.

Turkey’s ground and air operations in northern Iraq were justified by Ankara through the internationally recognised “hot pursuit” concept and agreements between Turkey and Iraq that enable both governments to cross their common borders while chasing terror groups.

“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,” said Bilgay Duman, coordinator of Iraq studies at the Ankara-based think-tank ORSAM.

“Following Turkey’s Afrin operation, PKK moved to northern Iraq and concentrated in the regions neighbouring Qandil mountains.”

Turkish military, he said, would have to wait for the formation of the new Iraqi government to take further action, due to the possible inclusion of Shia militia groups that would not favour a military rapprochement or joint operation between the two countries.

Ahmet Han, an international relations professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said the operation’s prospect to reach the Qandil Mountains is contingent on the political situation among the Iraqi government, the KRG and Iran.

“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,” he said.

Han said that, if the operation proves successful, it could create a huge effect on nationalistic-conservative segments among Turkish electorate.

“Turkey can cut off the supply lines from Qandil to northern Syria 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,” he noted.

If a buffer zone is established, Han added, it would not be a “picnic” area and there would be serious security risks that need to be managed.

“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,” he said.

“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.”