New Turkish offensive launched against the PKK in northern Iraq

Apr 29, 2022

On 18 April, the Turkish military launched another offensive in northern Iraq to target and prevent PKK infiltration routes. While Turkish officials described the operation as a preventive response to PKK attacks, the incursion is assessed as a continuation of operations that have been ongoing in the border areas in recent years. Wider regional repercussions are not anticipated, but a rise in threat atmospherics involving Iranian-backed groups and a corresponding uptick in northern Syria remains a consideration.

On the morning of 18 April, the Turkish Ministry of Defense announced the start of Operation Claw-Lock – the latest in a series of Turkish offensives targeting PKK support zones in northern Duhok and Erbil provinces. The operation was largely anticipated following weeks of military buildup and preparatory operations, and follows twin offensives codenamed Claw Lightning and Claw Thunderbolt in 2021, and Claw Eagle and Claw Tiger in 2020. Seemingly limited in scope by comparison, fighting during the week has been predominantly confined to areas near the Turkish border in line with the assessed longstanding intent to ensure a permanent foothold in the region and disrupt PKK movement between bases extending from the Qandil Mountains on the Iraq-Iranian border to the Syrian frontier.

Statements by Defense Minister Hulusi Akar during the week claimed the first phase of the operation was successfully completed after “all objectives were seized” on 19 April, and Akar later announced the start of a second phase of the operation. This phase is likewise expected to remain confined to the northern border areas, with direct Turkish-PKK confrontations restricted to established support zones.

Context and assessed objectives

The immediate objective of the operation is subject to somewhat conflicting accounts. Announcing the offensive, the Turkish Ministry of Defense claimed the operation was conducted preventively to disrupt PKK plans for “large-scale attacks.” No corroborating evidence to support this claim was presented or verified independently, however, prior to the operation PKK officials reportedly threatened to renew attacks in Turkish cities unless Turkish operations cease.

Two separate attacks were also carried out in Turkey days after the start of the operation, with both blamed on the PKK. On 20 April, a remotely controlled roadside IED targeted a vehicle transporting correction facilities officers in the Osmangazi district of Bursa province in northwestern Turkey, killing a prison guard and wounding several others. The next day, an IED detonated outside the offices of an NGO led by President Erdogan’s son Bilan Erdogan in the Gaziosmanpasa district of Istanbul, causing material damage but no casualties. No group claimed responsibility for the incidents, but Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said the attacks were carried out by Turkey’s Revolutionary Communist Party (DKP) and the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party (MKLP), and that both were “subcontracted to the PKK.”

While a reminder of the persistent threat of terrorist attacks inside Turkey despite a significant decline in recent years, both incidents are relatively minor by comparison to historic attack levels, and do not signify a major shift in PKK capabilities to conduct attacks on the Turkish mainland. Rather than a response to an imminent threat, the operation is, therefore, more appropriately regarded as a continuation of existing operations and is not assessed to constitute a significant shift in Turkey’s overall posture in northern Iraq. As mentioned, the launch of Claw-lock was widely anticipated and is consistent with the launch of Turkish spring offensives, when rising temperatures create more favorable conditions in the mountainous regions affected.

The immediate objectives and scope of the operation are also consistent with previous offensives and include consolidating Turkish ground presence to monitor and disrupt PKK activities within established support zones. To recall, in 2021 Interior Minister Soylu announced Turkey’s intent to establish a permanent base in the Metina region to monitor the area and control the route to the mountains on the Iraq-Iran border, where the central command center of the PKK is based. This week, a Turkish security official cited anonymously claimed the objective of the latest operation is to “completely end PKK’s infiltration into Turkey” by securing the Zap region and pushing the group “further south.”

Domestic considerations and relations with Iraq

While largely a continuation of previous activities, a few additional considerations are worth noting that may have encouraged the launch of the operation. As always, offensive operations against the PKK serve to shift focus away from existing domestic and economic issues facing President Erdogan’s government. This includes growing popular discontent over the government’s inability to prevent rising inflation rates and widespread criticism of the unorthodox economic policies adopted by Erdogan and the central bank, including the continued reluctance to increase interest rates despite rising inflation. According to official figures, the inflation rate in March reached above 61%, which is the highest recorded under President Erdogan’s leadership. Consensus estimates indicate an increase of another seven or eight percentage points is likely during the third quarter.

These and other issues, have galvanized the (otherwise fractured) Turkish opposition against Erdogan ahead of the 2023 elections, with polls in recent months indicating decreased support for the President and the AKP. Aside from distracting public attention from pressing economic concerns, the operation against the PKK may be seen as an early attempt to shore up conservative support, notably from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), ahead of the elections. The timing is also noteworthy amidst the war in Ukraine, which is understandably shifting focus away from any negative political fallout otherwise associated with the offensive. Wider international reactions have been relatively subdued accordingly.

A final consideration pertains to the political situation in Iraq, where a new government has yet to be formed and the weakness of the current government allows Turkey to extend operations on Iraqi soil with limited pushback. That said, despite Turkish assurances to respect Iraqi sovereignty, reactions in Baghdad have been overwhelmingly negative. Between 18 and 19 April, Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Iraq presidency released statements condemning Operation Claw-Lock as a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also summoned Turkish Ambassador Ali Riza Guney to deliver a note denouncing “the continuous violations of the Turkish army,” and renewing calls for the withdrawal of Turkish forces from Iraqi soil.

On 19 April, Shia cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr warned the Turkish government that Iraq “will not be silent” if Turkey continues to violate its sovereignty. For his part, Erdogan rebuffed these reactions and instead thanked the KRG and the Government of Iraq (GoI) for their “support” of the operation. Later that day, Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Ahmed al-Sahaf released a statement denying Turkish claims that the operation was conducted in cooperation with the GoI. The official reiterated the GoI’s stance that Turkey’s military operations are “hostile and unilateral.”

Meanwhile, reactions from Iran-linked factions were more hostile and marked by increased threat messaging against Turkish interests. On 25 April, several rockets were launched toward Camp Zilkan – a Turkish military base located inside a KRG-controlled area northeast of Mosul city. No casualties were inflicted, but the incident underscores the potential for increased threat atmospherics involving Iran-backed groups against Turkey. Associated tensions are potentially amplified by the alleged but unconfirmed targeting of a PMF site in Nineveh province by Turkish UAVs. Media reports citing anonymous security officials said the incident targeted a facility in Jarbu’ah village of the Bashiqa sub-district, northeast of Mosul city, however official reporting was limited, and no images or other evidence was presented to corroborate the veracity of the report.

Wider regional repercussions unlikely

Alongside the rocket attack in Zilkan, associated threat atmospherics involving Iranian-backed groups opposed to Turkish presence on Iraqi soil remains a consideration, but a wider uptick in Iranian-Turkish tensions is not anticipated. Broader regional implications are likewise not anticipated, and like previous operations, the immediate fallout is predominantly expected to translate locally in terms of rising PKK-Turkey tensions over the coming weeks. The primary exception includes a corresponding uptick in operations against PKK-linked groups in northern Syria, where an intensification of Turkish ground operations and UAV activity has been noted in recent weeks. This included the launch of artillery strikes targeting the Kurdish-dominated town of Kobani and precision UAV strikes targeting and killing a senior member of the US-backed Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) in the same town.

As always, this understandably raises the potential for an increase in US-Turkey tensions, however, the event is not unprecedented, and US/Coalition reactions thus far have been limited. For their part, Turkey is plausibly confident that the situation in Ukraine will disincentivize measures from the US that may undermine NATO cohesion, and absent a significant Turkish escalation, any major US pushback to the events in northern Syria is unlikely over the near term.

The medium-term implications of Operation Claw Lock will be monitored closely nonetheless, although wider regional repercussions are unlikely provided the operation remains confined to the northern border areas of the KR-I. Over the near term, Turkish forces are expected to establish several new combat outposts in the mentioned border regions over the course of multiple phases of incremental advances and consolidation efforts. For their part, PKK forces are expected to resist Turkish military movements, targeting forward Turkish forces through various forms of attack in both Iraq and Syria. Any major counter-responses outside these areas remain unlikely, but as highlighted by the attacks in Turkey on 20-21 April, the potential for PKK-linked responses affecting the Turkish mainland cannot be discounted.

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