Turkey Pulse

Turkish airstrikes hit Iraq as Erdogan calls for draining 'terror swamp'

Article Summary
Turkey's president is boasting of new anti-terror operations in northern Iraq, but no reports have emerged of a ground offensive and the consensus is that Erdogan’s latest chest-pounding is more about winning votes than fighting Kurdish militants.

Turkey has launched a fresh wave of airstrikes against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today, part of an ongoing effort to weaken and destroy the group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Addressing a campaign rally in the central Anatolian Nigde province, Erdogan said, “We’ve started anti-terror operations in Qandil and Sinjar. We have destroyed 14 important targets with our aircraft. … The [job] is not finished yet.”

Qandil refers to the chain of towering mountains separating Iraq from Iran where the PKK’s top commanders are based. Sinjar, a Yazidi-dominated area with its own smaller mountain, separates Iraq from Syria. Turkey’s strategic goal is to disrupt the flow of PKK fighters between Qandil and Syria, where their sister group known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) controls broad swaths of territory with the support of the US-led coalition against the Islamic State. Turkey labels both groups terrorists and has intensified pressure on them in recent months, driving the YPG out of Afrin, a mainly Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria, with Russia’s help in March. Erdogan said Turkey had “neutralized” 4,500 militants in Afrin. “We will drain the terror swamp in Qandil just like we cleansed Afrin, Jarablus, al-Bab and Azaz from the hordes of killers,” he declared.

Rebel sources contacted via WhatsApp confirmed that Turkish fighter jets had carried out fresh sorties but that there were “no signs” of a Turkish ground offensive against Qandil. Turkish forces who had crossed the border from Turkey’s Hakkari and Sirnak provinces remained in the Harkurk region adjoining Qandil, one of the sources told Al-Monitor.

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Safeen Dizayee, the chief of staff to the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, corroborated this version of events. He told Al-Monitor, “We are not aware of any Turkish land offensive against the PKK. But we are opposed to any and all threats the PKK or other groups pose to our neighbors and urge all sides to desist from all actions that cause harm to the civilian population.”

Real-time intelligence provided by the United States on PKK targets and the use of armed drones and other technology has made life harder, PKK militants concede. But the PKK has adapted its tactics accordingly, and if footage broadcast on their online Gerilla TV is authentic, the militants appear to be holding their own against Turkish forces when in close combat.

Turkey has been pummeling the Qandil Mountains on and off since the early 1990s and has mounted several land offensives against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, but to little effect mainly because of the breadth and impenetrable harshness of the terrain. Meanwhile, the YPG’s effectiveness against IS and the halo effect of partnership with the United States has seen a steady flow of men and women swelling its ranks.

Ankara’s fears that once the war against IS is over they will melt into the PKK and use the weapons and training provided by the coalition against Turkish forces are not unfounded. Indeed, the framework agreement unveiled last week by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pertaining to the withdrawal and disarming of YPG forces in the mainly Arab town of Manbij is a big test of Washington’s pledges to reclaim weapons provided to the Kurds in the fight against IS before and if the United States withdraws from northern Syria.

Still, the consensus is that Erdogan’s latest chest-pounding over Qandil is more about winning votes in the June 24 parliamentary and presidential elections than winning a war in which neither side has managed to prevail since the PKK launched its first attack in 1984.

Yet, if he was hoping to goad the PKK into resuming urban terror attacks of a kind that would frighten voters away from the largest pro-Kurdish bloc in the parliament, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the militants have yet to oblige. Their operations have been largely limited to border areas in the mainly Kurdish southeast.

Should the HDP win the minimum 10% of the national vote required to win seats in the parliament, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party is likely to lose its governing majority. Erdogan is doing his utmost to cast the group as PKK puppets in an overt bid to push it under the 10% threshold. At a campaign rally in the central Anatolian province of Kocaeli, Erdogan went as far as to suggest that if a parliamentary bill calling for the execution of the HDP’s imprisoned former leader Selahattin Demirtas were to come before him, he would have signed it “a long time ago.”

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Found in: sinjar, qandil mountains, pkk, ypg, recep tayyip erdogan, turkey elections, turkish politics, turkish intervention in syria, airstrikes

Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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