Turkey’s military interventions in Iraq hardly achieve anything

Ankara today finds itself exactly where it was 30 years ago, stuck in a messy conflict that brings neither security to Turkish citizens nor prosperity to Kurdish civilians.
Saturday 31/08/2019
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar (R) speaks with a Turkish officer at the Turkey-Iraq border near Hakkari, last June. (AP)
Show of strength. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar (R) speaks with a Turkish officer at the Turkey-Iraq border near Hakkari, last June. (AP)

Turkey has for decades carried out air strikes and ground assaults on rear-facing Kurdistan Workers’ Party camps in the mountainous Qandil region of northern Iraq. It is in now in the midst of yet another, Operation Claw.

The pro-Turkish-government Daily Sabah newspaper reported that the intervention is to remove Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) elements from the Hakurk region that “facilitates terrorist crossings between Qandil and Iraq’s Salahuddin province that borders Syria.”

Recognised as a terrorist organisation by Ankara, the European Union and the United States, the PKK has attacked Turkish military outposts, planted roadside bombs and abducted soldiers for almost 40 years. The conflict has cost the lives of more than 4,550 people in the past four years, 323 of whom died in northern Iraq, the International Crisis Group said.

In light of the death of three Turkish soldiers in Iraq in August and the many more — including an assassinated Turkish diplomat — in recent months, serious questions must be asked about why Ankara continues to pursue this avenue when the evidence so obviously points to it offering little tangible return.

While popular among Turkish nationalists and the far right to whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is heavily dependent for political support, northern Iraq has proved hugely expensive in terms of soldiers lost and financial costs.

When Operation Claw was announced in May, pro-government media claimed its purpose was to eradicate “PKK dominance” in northern Iraq. That’s a very lofty goal considering the rugged nature of the mountainous terrain and the fact that it transitions the borders of Iraq and Iran.

Often conducted with much jingoistic chest-beating and bestowed names such as Operation Steel or Operation Hammer, the Turkish military mounted the first large-scale operations involving tens of thousands of troops marching into northern Iraq in 1992 and 1995. The outcome in those years? The withdrawal of Turkish forces again from northern Iraq, the PKK’s continued presence there and the loss of many military and civilian lives.

In February 2008, Turkey sent thousands more into the Hakurk region over the course of a week with the stated aim of destroying the PKK’s “organisational infrastructure in the region.” It lost 24 soldiers, three village guards and an AH-1 Cobra helicopter. What did it achieve? Strategic stalemate.

In late May it mounted its latest excursion into the mountains, which, in the words of Turkey’s Ministry of National Defence, so far has “revealed new information on terrorist activity.”

Look at the bigger picture: Ankara today finds itself exactly where it was 30 years ago, stuck in a messy conflict that brings neither security to Turkish citizens nor prosperity to Kurdish civilians who remain sympathetic to PKK ideals.

These interventions cause an array of diplomatic problems between Ankara and governments in Baghdad and Erbil, whose territorial sovereignty Turkey walks all over, despite substantial evidence of the incursions not achieving much.

Why, if after every operation the Turkish military proclaims it to be an unequivocal success, that all its goals were met, does it a year or two later find itself repeating the same thing? The people of Turkey are not stupid. They know a successful military operation when they see one. Or do they?

There are several likely explanations.

For a country whose historical legacy is shrouded by the loss of huge amounts of territory during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, Turks are more than a little insecure when it comes to projecting power on the world. Part of that is because Turks learn from a young age about the might and power of the Ottoman era, not all of it factual. Big-budget television shows broadcast the historical fantasy — and some truths — of Ottoman victories against foreign enemies every year during Ramadan.

Second, the Turkish government knows it has little to lose by allowing its generals to get together to blast near-empty Iraqi mountainsides with thousands of kilograms of ordnance, especially when the images of such military might project the notion of a strong, proud and unflinching country.

Perhaps most important are the state’s efforts to press upon the citizens of Turkey that sometimes they must make sacrifices for the nation. Many of the first items on nightly newscasts are footage of grieving families burying sons who died fighting the PKK in the same isolated mountainside of Qandil. No one wants to see such images or, indeed, experience the loss of loved ones first-hand but no Turk would dare question the military’s purpose of actions; to do so would approach treason.

The PKK sees all of this and, on occasion, has provoked Turkey to attack northern Iraq, as it did in October 2013. Ankara played exactly into its hands.

Are there any alternatives Turkey could pursue?

It could release PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan from prison and the PKK, not a victim by any means, could implement an arms decommissioning process overseen by a competent, independent authority. However, the deep-rooted animosity between the two sides and a general disinterest in peace mean that’s unlikely to happen.

In all likelihood, the sound of exploding bombs will continue filling the empty mountains of northern Iraq for years to come.