Turkey’s undeclared operation in Iraq
On the eve of parliamentary and presidential elections, Turkey has been quietly maintaining its constant air and ground pressure against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq and edging slowly and cautiously towards the Qandil Mountains ever since “Operation Olive Branch” in Syria’s Afrin ended late March 2018. Although preparation of the ground on the Turkish side had begun much earlier and Turkey has re-started conducting regular cross-border operations in northern Iraq since at least January 2018, the real concentration came after Turkey realized that its much-sought after Manbij move in Syria could not come soon due to U.S. objections and a new operation towards Sinjar Mountains in northwest Iraq was also difficult because of the close existence and opposition of Iraqi, American, and Iranian-backed al-Hashd al-Shaabi forces in the area alongside strong PKK grouping.
Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the changing geopolitics of the Middle East due to civil war in Syria, continuing destabilization of Iraq, and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have provided opportunities to the Kurds in the region. While Masoud Barzani’s attempt to take advantage of these through a referendum in territories controlled by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) failed as a result of combined opposition of Iraq, Iran and Turkey, the Kurds in northeastern Syria under the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a PKK affiliate, has managed to carve out a zone of control as a result of active involvement of Kurdish groups in the fight against ISIL on behalf of the international coalition and the subsequent huge American support they received in return.
Turkey, which backs the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria, has been closely following the developments in both countries, as it believes the expansion of Kurdish-controlled areas, especially along the Turkish border, would threaten its security and, more importantly, unity. The recent operations carried out by the Turkish military first in Afrin and now in northern Iraq are the reflections of such heightened concerns as a result of the concentration of PKK terrorists in areas near the Turkish border.
It seems Turkish security forces have so far been able to establish 11 observation posts inside Iraq, stretching up to 25 kilometers from the border in what seems to be a preparation for a much larger ground operation in the region. Although the locations of those outposts on the map indicates to a move towards the Qandil Mountain near the Iraq-Iran border, the Turkish forces are still about 80 kilometers away from the PKK stronghold, where it has been keeping about 5,000 terrorists since the early 2000s. Using the region as its headquarters for more than three decades, the PKK has been able to carry out attacks in Turkey and escape to the safety of Qandil. The least Turkey is trying to achieve with its latest operation is to cut off PKK’s supplies, infiltration, escape, and regrouping routes between Turkey and the Qandil Mountains.
Turkish forces are still far from the Qandil Mountains to start a direct ground operation to root out the PKK presence there, as it also requires more ground preparation as well as much closer cooperation with the Iraqi central government and Iran, as well as other Kurdish groups in Iraq. However, forthcoming elections in Turkey complicate the story, as any operation in the vicinity of the region would provide the government with an edge through consolidation of nationalist sentiments. According to our new survey, conducted on behalf of the Center for Turkish Studies at Kadir Has University, 55.7 percent of Turkish citizens support all cross-border operations to combat terrorism. The government might not be able to resist the temptation to play this card before the elections.