What is the aim of Turkey’s anti-PKK campaign in Iraq?
On the one hand, Turkish military units have for weeks been operating in Iraqi territory with air and land units against positions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). On the other hand, ranking Turkish officials including President Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, and Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar have been making statements about an approaching massive operation against the PKK’s headquarters in the Kandil Mountains near the Turkish and Iranian borders.
This may seem contradictory, as heralding a coming operation with loudspeakers three times a day kills one of the most fundamental principles of any military operation: The surprise factor.
The opposition parties have criticized the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) for this reason, saying such statements allow terrorists to take countermeasures to protect themselves and makes it more difficult for operations to produce the targeted results.
Similar debates occurred before the Euphrates Shield Operation into Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Jarablus-Dabiq-al Bab region in 2016-17, as well as before the Olive Branch Operation in early 2018 against the PKK and its Syrian branch the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin on the Turkish-Syrian border. But despite criticisms from the opposition parties, both of those operations reached their aim.
Official figures state that 3,000 militants were killed in the Euphrates Shield campaign, while 4,500 were killed in the Olive Branch campaign. The physical link of armed groups was cut from the border and they were largely pushed away from the border, at least in the operation areas. Some 150,000 of the 3 million Syrian immigrants in Turkey have so far been re-settled in those areas, according to official figures.
The operations witnessed Turkish security forces confronting threats outside of the country’s borders for the first time in years, and the result showed itself in the decreased number of acts of terror inside the country. This effect was echoed in society. According to a recent survey carried out by Kadir Has University in Istanbul, terrorism is no longer seen as a number one foreign policy issue by the Turkish people. Instead, the most pressing problem is cited as Syria.
A similar line is now being followed in anti-PKK operations in Iraq. Prime Minister Yıldırım said yesterday, on June 6, that the Turkish army is determined to enter both Kandil and Sinjar, the latter being another region that the PKK wants to control as a physical corridor between its area of controls in Iraq and Syria.
A security source who asked not to be named told the Hürriyet Daily News that although official statements about future operations are sometimes seen as killing the surprise factor, they can actually be useful in intimidating the militants, causing disarray in their ranks and taking the psychological advantage from their hands, forcing them to take defensive positions.
The same source also highlighted something else specific to the Iraq operation: The PKK used to escalate its acts of terror in spring and summer months as a result of its preparations and training during autumn and winter. But in the last two years the PKK has not been able to prepare for summer attacks due to continuous operations on their winter bases near the Turkish border. Now blows are reigning down on the PKK before it infiltrates into Turkey for hit-and-run operations.
Turkish operations are targeting six major PKK positions in Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) zone along the border, with the Kandil Mountains as the ultimate target. The PKK headquarters has been based in Kandil, scattered in pockets over an area of thousands of square kilometers, for almost four decades. So it will certainly not be easy to enter or clear it in a single operation.
But if the Kandil Mountains are no longer inaccessible for Turkish troops – particularly for air raids - then this could be a psychological threshold. What we are observing is therefore a hybrid of actual and psychological warfare in a non-conventional theater. The main aim seems to be deterrence in the broadest possible sense.