The military operation carried out by Turkey in areas in northern Iraq since 15 June 2020 against bases of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positioned there has once again shed light on the complicated security environment that has been characterizing the Iraqi-Turkish border since the mid-1980s. This multi-stage and multi-level military operation, dubbed by Turkey Operation Claw-Eagle and Operation Claw-Tiger, was not the first of its kind in this geography. It has been preceded by many military operations since early 1992, the main goal of which was to eliminate the military power of the PKK that has entered into an open confrontation with the Turkish state ever since.

However, the recent military operation is unique in that it is more comprehensive and more powerful than previous military operations, especially that it came after Turkish air reconnaissance and observation operations that lasted for two years. Through those operations, Turkey was able to monitor most of the moves by PKK operatives along the Iraqi-Turkish border, in addition to tracing most of the PKK’s command and control systems located in the areas of Sinjar and Qandil Mountains, extending westward to the Syrian border and eastward to the Iranian border. Apparently, through this operation, Turkey seeks to make these areas part of the safe zone in northeastern Syria, through the series of military operations it has been carrying out, the last of which being Operation Peace Spring in October 2019.

The nature and operational goals of the military operation in northern Iraq

The PKK’s presence within the Iraqi border constituted one of the top issues in the path of the Iraqi-Turkish relations since the middle of the 20th century. The situation became even more complicated with Iraq’s failure to extend its internal dominion over the country’s northern areas due to the resolutions of the UN Security Council to impose no-fly zones in the 1990s. The UN resolutions contributed to downsizing Iraqi sovereignty over the cities of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, the three major cities comprising the so-called Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

Upon review of the Turkish national security strategy, it is noticed that reference is made to multiple security belts that constitute influential spaces in Turkey’s national security. Turkey is also found to attach great attention to the geographical line extending from Syrian Aleppo to Iraqi Mosul. Turkey considers that crossing this line by any local or regional power constitutes a threat to its national security. That is why the presence of PKK operatives along that geographical belt constitutes a security gap from which Turkey has suffered considerably.

Accordingly, it can be said that the operational goals of the Turkish troops in the areas of northern Iraq are as follows:

  • Eliminating the presence of PKK operatives along the Iraqi-Turkish border.
  • Destroying the PKK’s command and control systems in the areas of Sinjar and the Qandil Mountains.
  • Destroying the PKK’s camps and headquarters in the areas of Dohuk and Zakho, among others.
  • Cutting the border strip which connects the PKK with the Kurdish groups in Syria.
  • Attempting to create a 50-kilometre-deep safe zone within the Iraqi border in a manner that would enable connecting the Haftanin border area to the Bashiqa camp in the Nineveh Plains where the Turkish troops are located.

The Turkish motives

Turkey is aware that the post-coronavirus US position may be quite complicated, particularly in Iraq which is holding a strategic dialogue with Washington that could pave the way for a future US withdrawal from that country. Therefore, the Turkish strategic considerations may necessitate the establishment of a new regional reality in northern Iraq before Iran exploits the opportunity once again as had been the case in the aftermath of the US military withdrawal in 2011.

In addition, the changing dynamics in the Syrian arena, particularly in the northeastern regions, through which Turkey strives to project beyond Aleppo, as opposed to Iran’s endeavour to access the Mediterranean, constitute a strategic intersection between both projects whose repercussions may be found in the geographical extension inside the Iraqi border, specifically in the cities of Sinjar and Rabia and the Nineveh Plains that witness a military presence by the pro-Iranian militias on the one hand and Turkish PKK on the other. This is a geographical reality that Turkey feels has to be overcome as soon as possible.

In addition, there are numerous motives that drove Turkey to initiate those military operations at this timing, including:

  • The endeavour by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make this operation a credit added to his political balance in the forthcoming internal political processes.
  • Influencing the chances of the Kurdish political parties in southern Turkey which is an environment of electoral competition that had served the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the past.
  • Pulling an important card from the hands of the Turkish opposition, particularly the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) which believes that the AKP policies are the main reason for the state of security congestion experienced in the areas of southern Turkey.
  • Influencing the political options of Syrian Kurds who aspire to replicate the experience of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region in post-conflict Syria.

Position of the Iraqi government and the Erbil government on the Operation

Despite the diplomatic positions denouncing this operation, which were voiced by the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs on more than one occasion and in more than one way, including the summoning of the Turkish Ambassador to Baghdad Fatih Yildiz to convey to him Iraq’s official protest, the secret visit carried out by the Head of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) Hakan Fidan to Iraq early May 2020 indicates that security arrangements have been agreed upon with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, allowing the visit to be seen as an indication of a new path in the relationship between Baghdad and Ankara.

In this context, it is noteworthy that the government of the Kurdistan Region, unlike the declared opposed position demonstrated by Baghdad, has indicated, through the Region’s President Nechirvan Barzani, that it is not opposed to the Turkish military operations. Barzani said that the presence of the Turkish PKK and the Iranian Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) create a state of security instability in the Iraqi-Turkish-Iranian triangle.

The regional dimensions of the Turkish military operation

The large expansion in the current military operations against the bases and points of concentration of the Turkish PKK in northern Iraq indicates that Turkey looks forward to creating a new security environment that is free from the influences of the other players on it. This refers to local and regional players that have constituted real constraints on Turkey’s aspiration to set up a new regional order with Turkey as its centrepiece. Thus, the duration of those operations would be linked to the nature of the goals that Turkey will achieve.

Recent developments indicate that the Turkish military operation in northern Iraq has entered its second phase after a large number of Turkish troops managed to take positions in several military points inside the Iraqi border, the last of which being the control of the peak of Mount Khamater in Dohuk province last week, in addition to the deployment of Turkish troops in many military positions that were previously used by the PKK. Despite the goals announced by Turkey prior to the launch of the recent military operation, what is evident is that Turkey views the goals achieved by this operation as part of a long-term strategy with political, economic and security aspects.

In this context, it could be re-stressed that the strategic goal that Turkey currently aspires to achieve is the creation of a 50-kilometre-deep safe zone beyond the Iraqi border, starting from the Haftanin border area to the Bashiqa camp in the Nineveh Plains where the Turkish troops are positioned. This would allow those troops to control many strategic corridors connecting this safe zone to the cities of Sinjar, Qandil, al-Zab, Avashin and Basyan, in addition to connecting this safe zone to the Hakork area at the Iranian border in southeast Turkey. The goal of all this is to control the northern border strip connecting Iraq and Syria.

Conclusion

The same geopolitical considerations that the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks to achieve in Syria and Libya fit into the context of the recent military operation in northern Iraq. This approach draws its viability from the state of geostrategic vacuum that characterizes countries of the region. This has driven many regional players to restructure the strategic balances within the framework that serves their political aspirations. The Turkish case is no exception; Turkey views the border strip connecting it to Iran, Iraq and Syria, that is the areas of Kurdish concentration and deployment, as one of the top threats to the Turkish national security. Thus, Turkey thinks that it is necessary to create new geographical conditions that serve the Turkish regional role instead of focusing on internal security issues that would hamper that role. This is underlined in the recent Turkish military operation against the PKK in northern Iraq.

Latest Briefs