Turkey signals big campaign against PKK in Iraq
Throughout last week there were a number of news reports about Turkish soldiers killed or wounded in clashes in Iraqi territory. Stories attributed to unnamed security sources also referred to Turkish commandos infiltrating into Iraq in order to cut the supply lines of the PKK headquarters in the Kandil Mountains in the northeast (bordering both Turkey and Iran) with the northwest (bordering Syria).
On June 2, Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar visited troops based in the southeastern province of Hakkari, which borders both Iraq and Iran and is across from the Kandil Mountains, together with his top brass. Addressing commanders and family members of those killed or wounded in the anti-terror fight, Akar said the operations will “continue to neutralize the terrorists who pose a threat to the country,” as in the cases of the Euphrates Shield Operation, the Olive Branch Operation and those being carried out in northern Iraq.
The Euphrates Shield Operation was carried out between August 2016 and February 2017 in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) strongholds of Jarablus, Dabiq and al-Bab. It also aimed to obstruct the physical links between People’s Protection Units (YPG) militants in the northeast and northwest of Syria. The YPG is the militia of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the PKK, which has been fighting to carve an independent state out of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria for nearly four decades. The U.S. has picked the YPG as its ground partner against ISIL since 2014, despite the fact that Washington designates the PKK as a terrorist group and acknowledges its link with the YPG in official reports. The YPG formed a shell front called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) upon a demand from the U.S.
The Olive Branch Operation was conducted between January and April 2018 against the YPG/PKK stronghold of Afrin in northwestern Syria with the indirect consent of Russia, the main supporter of the Syrian regime.
Before speaking in Hakkari on June 2, Akar held a telephone conversation with U.S. Chief of Staff Joseph Dunford. The U.S. side said of the conversation that “the two leaders continued their ongoing conversation regarding Syria, to include ensuring the lasting defeat [of ISIL],” while the Turkish side said “security threats in Syria and the struggle against terrorist organizations” in Syria were discussed.
The main issue in Syria between the two NATO allies is the U.S.’s partnership with the YPG, which Washington says is necessary until the final defeat of ISIL. Turkey wants the U.S. to withdraw the YPG from the Syrian town of Manbij, situated on the west bank of the river Euphrates, as previously promised by the U.S. government.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu is scheduled to meet U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington today, June 4, hoping to approve a roadmap to evacuate the YPG from Manbij. The approval and implementation of this roadmap is expected to bring about a relative drop in tension between Turkey and the U.S.
Turkish and Iraqi officials, meanwhile, have been making statements that the PKK threat to Turkey from Iraqi territory will no longer be tolerated. The PKK has been based in the Kandil Mountains since 1984, when it started organized acts of terror against Turkey. Its headquarters was moved from Damascus to Kandil in 1999, when Syria was forced to expel Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s founder, in October 1998. Öcalan was arrested after he was forced out of the Greek Embassy in Kenya in February 1999 by Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MİT) with the help of the CIA.
There is no indication yet whether a large operation in Iraq will start before Eid al-Fıtr on June 15, or before early elections on June 24, or later. But in the past operations such as Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch started days after Akar’s visited troops on those parts of the border with Syria.