19.01.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Turkey launches new local war against PKK in Iraq

The Kurdish issue

The Kurdish issue remains a key threat to Turkey’s internal and external security. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), banned and recognised as a terrorist organisation in Turkey, somehow continues its actions against Turkish forces in northern Syria and Iraq, which is used by Ankara to conduct local military operations in neighbouring countries to suppress the resistance of Kurdish forces and destroy their military facilities.

As it became known from mass media, on 22 and 23 December this year, 12 Turkish servicemen were killed as a result of attacks of PKK militants on a Turkish military camp in the north of Iraq. This event triggered a prompt reaction of the Turkish command and led to the Turkish army’s retaliatory actions with the use of combat aviation forces on the places of deployment of Kurdish formations. According to Turkish Defence Minister Yaşar Güler, the Turkish army’s operation in northern Iraq resulted in the deaths of about 30 Kurdish militants.

At the same time, the Turkish intelligence agency MIT (one of the permanent tasks of which is to detect, prevent and suppress subversive activities of the PKK), according to the state agency Anadolu, neutralised a PKK leader with the code name “Bahoz Afrin” in northern Syria. The latter was responsible for carrying out military actions in Syria’s Ain al-Arab (Kobani) neighbourhood since 2021. The Turkish side became aware of the planning of new actions with the participation of “Bahoz Afrin” on the Syrian-Turkish border, which accelerated the operation to eliminate the Kurdish militant.

The US State Department formally supported Turkey’s retaliation against the PKK. Specifically, the State Department statement noted: “The United States strongly supports NATO ally Turkey and the Turkish people in their fight against the PKK, which it has designated as a foreign terrorist organisation. We condemn all acts of terrorism against Turkey and its people. The United States recognises the legitimate security threat the PKK poses to Turkey.”

At the same time, Turkey periodically uses the subject of the Kurdish threat to conduct local military operations on the territory of the weakened neighbouring countries of Iraq and Syria. At the same time, the Turkish authorities are quite loyal to the leader of the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq with the centre in Erbil, M. Barzani, who controls the oil of Mosul. In 1992, Turkish President Turgut Ozal gave Masoud Barzani a Turkish passport for free movement. It was then that Barzani, after Saddam Hussein’s failure in the Persian Gulf, was able to regain full control of the Kurdish-populated territories in northern Iraq.

It is obvious that Mosul oil “softens the weather” in relations between Ankara and Erbil, and the Turkish oil terminal in the port of Ceyhan becomes a transit zone for Mosul oil. At the same time, the Barzani regime became a key ally of the US, UK and Israel against the S. Hussein regime in the 2000s.

At the same time, official Baghdad, weakened by the American-British intervention and the actual division of Iraq into three parts (Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish), has repeatedly expressed its concern to Ankara about the presence of Turkish troops in the Zlikan camp in the north-east of Mosul. Turkey justifies the presence of its forces in northern Iraq by the need to fight the outlawed PKK. This dispute continues to this day between Baghdad and Ankara.

To confirm its motivation for the presence of the Turkish military in Iraq, Turkey obviously has to demonstrate the reality of the Kurdish threat from time to time and suppress them with the use of force. However, such actions by Ankara are causing concern not only in Baghdad, but also in Washington. The United States is apparently worried about the strengthening of Turkey’s operational capabilities in the Middle East (in particular, in the northern Kurdish-populated areas bordering Syria and Iraq).

Azerbaijani expert Tural Kerimov believes that the geopolitical processes taking place in the world objectively lead to a revision of the state of affairs, which no longer meet the interests of individual players. He mentions the situation between Guyana and Venezuela, in West and Central Africa, Ukraine and the Gaza Strip as arguments. In this regard, Kerimov believes that Turkey can now also revise the status quo in its favour in Syria and Iraq. The latter two countries, as Kerimov notes, “used to be quite stable states”. However, after the intervention of the “world gendarmes” (i.e. the US and Israel), chaos appeared in the Middle East. That is why Tural Kermiov believes that Turkey, for its own security reasons due to threats of Kurdish terrorism and separatism, can change the status quo in Syria and Iraq in its favour.

However, Mr Kerimov presents a somewhat truncated picture of the Middle East chaos, referring Israel to the “world gendarmes” and “forgetting” the destructive role of Britain. No matter how much Israel declares its strength in the region, without the military and political support of the US and Britain, the Jewish state is unable to play any significant role in Middle Eastern affairs.

What does “Turkey may revise the status quo in its favour” mean in relation to the northern parts of Syria and Iraq? It seems that the territorial integrity of these countries is not in doubt either by the key world players or the UN. How is Turkey going to change the status quo of neighbouring states? And what reaction of the same Arab and Islamic world will follow it?

Perhaps this is only the opinion of a pro-Turkish expert with an emotional analysis. However, Tural Kerimov should hardly be classed as an unserious expert, for his opinion is based on certain analyses, assessments and conclusions. So, accusing Israel of “war crimes” in the Gaza Strip and Kurdish militants of terrorism and separatism in northern Syria and Iraq, Mr Erdogan is not in vain warning about the spread of military conflict to new countries in the Middle East.

Formally, Ankara at the negotiations on the Syrian settlement to its partners (the same Russia and Iran) also declares the preservation of the territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic. However, neither the Turkish president nor his defence and foreign ministers are going to withdraw their troops from the occupied territories in northern Syria. Erdogan promises to withdraw them later, when final stability comes. But when it will come and what this stability looks like in Ankara’s understanding, neither Damascus, Tehran nor Moscow know. Obviously, the same picture is emerging in the situation in the north of Iraq.

That is why the above-mentioned statement of the U.S. State Department additionally notes the need to coordinate Turkey’s forceful actions on the territory of Iraq with official Baghdad and to respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi state. In particular, the document says: “We call on Turkey to coordinate its actions with Iraq in a way that supports and respects Iraqi sovereignty.”

Meanwhile, in Turkey itself, the political opposition, represented by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has called for an immediate closed-door session of the Turkish parliament in connection with the deaths of 12 soldiers in northern Iraq. The HDP considers it important to invite Defence Minister Yaşar Güler to the meeting to get a full explanation of the incident in Iraq and the situation in Syria. The opposition proposes a nationwide mourning in Turkey over the deaths of military personnel.

Whether the Turkish Republicans will use this failure of the authorities in Iraq as political pressure in the upcoming municipal elections is hard to say. The resignation of the military minister is also a serious step towards destabilising Turkey’s internal political stability, which the authorities will not allow.

Turkey, according to Yaşar Güler, maintains a large group of troops in the region and regularly conducts operations in northern Syria and Iraq against Kurdish militants. In connection with the latest situation, Turkish security forces have already destroyed 29 PKK military facilities and about 30 Kurdish militants.

“The PKK,” notes Y. Guler says: “The PKK has suffered significant losses and has been deprived of any room for manoeuvre. Our operations will continue until the last terrorist in the region is eliminated.

Certain forces in Turkey may attribute the latest military offensive by Kurdish fighters in Iraq to provocations by the United States, which enjoys special honour among Kurdish formations. According to the representatives of this point of view, Washington by the hands of Kurds, apparently, is trying to exert another pressure on Ankara in terms of accelerating the solution of the Swedish issue in the Turkish parliament in the last days of the passing year 2023. In any case, the Kurdish factor is again used to aggravate the regional situation.

Thus, the Kurdish issue remains relevant in the Middle East agenda, which forces Turkey to disregard diplomatic methods of resolving this issue and actively use a forceful approach. While Israel is betting on a large-scale war against Hamas and Palestinian separatism in the Gaza Strip, Turkey has so far limited itself to point-blank strikes and localised military operations against the PKK and Kurdish separatism.


Alexander SVARANTS – PhD of Political Science, Professor, especially for the online magazine «New Eastern Outlook».

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