Baghdad calls on Ankara to end bombardment, withdraw forces sent in against suspected positions used by Kurdistan Workers Party
Turkey said on Thursday it had destroyed 500 “terror targets” in northern Iraq. The announcement came a day after word of a dual ground/air operation to combat Kurdish militants there.
The Turkish government announced on Twitter that the operation had been launched in the Iraqi region of Haftanin. The TRT state news agency reported that Turkish forces had “neutralized” fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) with air strikes.
The PKK has mounted a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey, with tens of thousands having died. The Kurdish militant group is classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Ankara says the operation in Iraq followed attempted attacks by the PKK against some of its domestic military bases.
Iraq is demanding that Turkey “stop the bombardment” and “withdraw [its] forces.”
Muzaffer Senel, an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Istanbul’s Şehir University, told The Media Line that the operation was meant to clear northern Iraq of hostile Kurdish fighters, just as Ankara had hoped to do with its incursion into northeastern Syria last October.
The goal, he said, was to “clear the area of the PKK… to create a safer zone for its borders [and] to prevent any infiltration from the PKK.”
Ankara believes that the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia based in northern Syria, has been providing support to the insurgency in Turkey.
Senel added that Turkey’s strategy was to go on the offensive to prevent attacks rather than wait.
The latest incursion, codenamed “Operation Claw-Tiger,” includes commandos, fighter jets, attack helicopters and drones, the Turkish government has stated.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told a group of army commanders that the operation was “going very well,” adding: “We will continue with the same seriousness and determination, and hopefully we will successfully end this operation.”
We will continue with the same seriousness and determination, and hopefully we will successfully end this operation
Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, said that one of the motivations for the offensive was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire for support from a domestic audience.
“The government needs to increase its popularity, and these kinds of military operations create a kind of rally-round-the-flag effect, or at least it is hoped [among] government authorities that such operations will increase the standing of the AKP [Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party] in opinion polls,” Esen told The Media Line.
Last June, the AKP lost the Istanbul mayoral race to the main opposition, handing the Turkish president his greatest political defeat since coming to office.
While Erdogan’s personal popularity has not been hurt as much as that of his party, the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout could lead to stiffer challenges.
“They are probably now trying to come up with strategies for mobilizing their base,” Esen said.
He adds that while the operation will increase tensions with Iraq’s government, it is unlikely to lead to major diplomatic damage if it does not last long, especially since Baghdad is concerned about any separatist aspirations among its own Kurdish population.
Iraq summoned the Turkish ambassador on Tuesday over what until Wednesday had been a purely aerial offensive.
Kristian Brakel, an Istanbul-based analyst and Turkey director for the Heinrich Böll Foundation, said that while Iraq may not like what Turkey does, it provides balance to Iran’s presence in the country.
“I think the overarching goal is still to make it impossible for the PKK to conduct operations within Turkey, and to break [its] military backbone in Iraq,” he told The Media Line, adding that Ankara might also be trying to stop the PKK from sending supplies to the YPG in Syria.
While Brakel does not believe that Ankara’s primary goal is to distract the country’s domestic audience, the incursion into Iraq could still play a role in the government’s calculations.
“There’s probably a public aspect to it,” he said. “And, of course, it always plays well with the Turkish constituency to show that you’re strong against the PKK.”