The border between Iraq and Turkey has been heating up the past few weeks and has reached a boiling point. Yesterday, a clash on the border claimed the lives of around 17 Turkish soldiers and over 30 PKK militants. The PKK purports to have taken hostages, a claim which has thus far been denied by Turkey although they later admitted to having 8 missing soldiers. With some form of military incursion looming, it would seem odd that the PKK is continuing to provoke Turkey by engaging in ever greater attacks. Are they trying to lure the Turks in? What is the bigger issue, the attacks or their frequency? Why are we only now suddenly hearing so much about the PKK in Iraq?
Turkey’s current Kurdish insurgency dates back to the 70s with the formation of the PKK and the beginning of its struggle for Kurdish independence. Since the 2003 liberation of Iraq, PKK militants have increasingly sought and found safe haven in Iraqi Kurdistan and come into possession of a wealth of new weapons. Some sources speculate they receive indirect support from US intelligence services arming PJAC, a similar Kurdish group, against Iran. In any case, the frequency and deadliness of attacks in southeastern Turkey has been on the rise, unsurprisingly especially in the border regions with Iraq. Turkey has had enough.
Turkish parliament approved a bill green lighting the Turkish military to enter Iraq to pursue the PKK and in light of the recent attack, it seems more and more likely they will use it although. It is, however, unclear whether they will in fact do this for two reasons. Firstly, it would greatly anger the United States who wishes to preserve the success being enjoyed in Iraqi Kurdistan. Secondly, it would be exceedingly difficult to accomplish any kind of meaningful attack. The PKK bases in question, in the Qandil mountains, are far inside Iraqi Kurdistan and thus realistically unreachable by ground offensive lest a much larger battle ensue which would defeat the purpose of a quick punitive raid and potentially escalate into a much larger and longer conflict. According to Jamestown, the most likely course of action would be…
[...] the Turkish military will launch a combined air and ground operation in which ground troops will be deployed against the PKK’s forward bases in northwest Iraq, while F-16s will be used to bomb the organization’s camps in the Qandil Mountains (Milliyet, October 12). There have also been suggestions that the Turkish military would follow the F-16 bombing raids by using helicopters to airlift 4-5 teams of special forces, backed by Cobra attack helicopters, into the Qandil Mountains to destroy any remaining PKK forces and infrastructure
In addition, the Turks could expect resistance from the Peshmerga, the army of Iraqi Kurdistan with decades of experience fighting a guerrilla war against Saddam. The PKK in northern Iraq is not a new phenomenon and the border region where Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet is extremely rugged and mountainous, having long been a hideout and staging ground for the Kurds whether fighting against, Saddam, the Iranians or the Turks. With that in mind, Turkey may also consider setting up a buffer zone inside Iraq, where it already has several thousand troops stationed just over the border, and that could get very messy.
Why would the PKK wish to provoke the Turks into attacking Iraq? According to Jamestown’s recent newsletter,
Turkish analysts have speculated that it is hoping that the international community will intervene to curb any military operation before it has had the opportunity to inflict much damage. This would not only humiliate the Turkish government and military but, so the reasoning goes, could increase international pressure on Turkey to sit down at the negotiating table with the PKK.
Indeed. As the saying goes, war is politics by other means and the increasing PKK attacks may well be aimed at achieving several immediate political goals: isolating Turkey, legitimizing the PKK, pushing the US and Turkey further apart and drawing attention to Iraqi Kurdistan as a model for Turkish Kurdistan. As the Turkish Prime Minister’s statements become more belligerent and Turks from all sides call for action, it would seem the PKK is about to get its wish.
SIDENOTE: Although most eyes are currently focused on the Turkey-Iraq situation, one should not forget that the Iranians have and continue to shell northern Iraq and conduct covert operations there against the PKK and PJAK. While large scale operations are similarly unlikely, the danger of a larger regional war with Turkey and Iran seizing parts of Iraq exists.