Turkey launches large-scale operation in northern Iraq against Kurdish militants

ANKARA: Turkey started the new week with the launch of a large-scale cross-border ground and air offensive against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.

Along with artillery, T129B helicopters, drones and F-16 fighters, Turkish special forces and elite commando units were also deployed in the campaign which reportedly hit Workers’ Party targets of Kurdistan, or PKK, in northern Iraq, in Metina, Zap and Avashin. – Basian regions.

The cross-border action, dubbed Operation Claw Lock, came a day after Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said: “We will save Syria and Iraq from the hands of the United States and Europe. , and bring peace there.

Zaed Ismail, a member of the scientific committee of the Istanbul-based Academy of International Relations, linked the operation to the increase in missile strikes against the Turkish base of Zilikan in Nineveh and the expansion of the PKK in the north from Iraq to Sinjar. It is also linked to recent political contacts between Ankara and Irbil.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently met Masrour Barzani, Prime Minister of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil.

Experts have noted that Sinjar is becoming an alternative headquarters for the PKK.

“The military operations started about a week after Barzani’s visit to Ankara and this clearly indicated the existence of security coordination between Irbil and Ankara to launch the military operation,” Ismail said.

Ismail said the PKK “has begun to pose an increased existential threat to the political stability of the entire geography of northern Iraq, with repeated missile attacks on Erbil airport”.

The offensive was carried out in coordination with Turkey’s “friends and allies”, the defense ministry said.

But, for Ismail, it is difficult to resolve the battle with airstrikes, unless the international conditions are created for a large ground operation.

The operation, which began at midnight, was launched as Russia showed no respite in its invasion of Ukraine, while Turkey’s mediating role was welcomed by Western partners.

The US and EU have already designated the PKK as a terrorist group.

Tuna Aygun, an Iraqi expert with the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, said the latest operation took place as part of a previous offensive, but this time Turkey targeted fleeing PKK elements from eastern and western sides. of the region.

“The operation area (had been) a shelter for PKK militants for some time. Especially since 2017, (the) PKK has mainly concentrated its logistical and military force in Iraq to hit targets in Turkey,” he told Arab News.

“By establishing temporary military bases, Turkey aims to establish its control over the militants’ transit routes based on the geographical characteristics of the territory,” Aygun said.

However, it is still unclear how long the military operation will last and whether the movements of PKK militants will be restricted.

“It will not be a one-day operation. But with the increased use of armed drones in such offensives, these movements are no longer dependent on weather conditions,” Aygun said. He added that Turkey’s latest operation has support from Baghdad and Erbil as it is seen as a way to stabilize a region where thousands of civilians have been displaced in recent years due to the presence of the PKK.

Ahead of the next elections next year, this operation is also likely to affect Turkish politics in the eyes of nationalist voters, and to be used as a trump card against the pro-Kurdish opposition party, the Parti democracy of the peoples.

Yerevan Saeed, a research associate at the Arab Gulf Institute in Washington, said Turkey has been seeking to build a security zone inside the Kurdistan region for several years.

“The military operation seems to be deeper and more intense this year,” he told Arab News.

Its objectives are likely to include taking control of the strategic areas of Afashin, Matin, Khukuk and Zab. “(The) Turkish army failed to control them in the past,” he added.

“If successful, Ankara will be able to separate the Qandil mountains where the PKK bases are located from the Rojava and Sinjar regions, (restricting) the PKK’s movements.”

Ali Semin, an Iraq policy expert from Istanbul’s Nisantasi University, said the offensive was part of a series of operations since 2019 aimed at creating a buffer zone between its border with northern Iraq and areas dominated by the PKK.

“Ankara seems to be seizing the best political opportunity to expand its operations,” he told Arab News.

“The leaders of Baghdad and Erbil see the latest activities of the PKK as an intervention (to) their political presence,” Semin said.

“Unlike Turkey’s past operations which were criticized by Iraqi authorities as a violation of their territorial sovereignty, Turkey’s current operation (has) mainly supported them,” the expert said.

Over the past three decades, Semin said, about 250 villages have been evacuated in northern Iraq. It is also where fighting has intensified in recent years between peshmerga forces loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PKK.

According to Noah Ringler, an expert from Georgetown University, the offensive has received military support from Turkish-aligned PDK Peshmerga and comes amid ongoing challenges with government formations in Baghdad, where Turkish officials now believe they have broad political party support for the operation. .

“The objectives of the operation probably include new Turkish operations posts closer to the PKK’s strategic strongholds near the Qandil mountains, which are of political importance in Turkey, as well as the disruption of PKK operations and influence. in the region, and the strengthening of Kurdish and Iraqi political actors aligned with Turkey,” he told Arab News.

Experts also note that the success of such operations will also influence local dynamics in Syria.

“(The) Kurdish People’s Protection Units are mainly logistically and militarily supported by PKK bases in Sinjar,” Semin said.

Baghdad and Irbil reached a security and administrative agreement on Sinjar on October 9, 2020.

However, the agreement that provided for the withdrawal of PKK forces from the region has not yet been implemented.

“Turkey, together with Baghdad and Irbil, can be a facilitator to execute this agreement and turn the region into a safe zone where the Iraqi authorities regain control,” Semin said.

Sharon P. Juarez