Turkey ramps up war on Kurds in Northern Iraq 

Turkish airstrikes in Northern Iraq are nothing new, but the recent co-ordinated air and ground assault is unprecedented, writes John Lubbock.

At the end of June, the Turkish military launched a double ground and air offensive into the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq. Operation Claw-Eagle, an air offensive, was followed a few days later by Operation Claw-Tiger, which Turkey said was in response to ‘increasing harassment and attempts to attack’ Turkish military bases in the area. 

According to a (now deleted) post from Turkey’s Communications Ministry, Turkey has 37 military installations on the border with or inside the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Twelve of these bases are thought to be newly created since the beginning of the Turkish offensive on 15 June, and suggest that Turkey is trying to increase its ‘security corridor’ along its border by pushing up to 50 kilometres inside Iraq

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey has long considered a terrorist organization that it has been fighting in Turkey since the late 1970s, is known to have encampments in the Qandil mountains area on the border between Iran and Iraq where the terrain provides cover from attack and allows for coordination between the PKK and its affiliate Iranian Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK).

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps seems to have co-operated with Turkey on its offensive by shelling the border area between Iraq and Iran in the middle of June, assisted by Turkish drones. The co-ordination came less than a week after an official visit to Istanbul by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Kurds have often complained that Turkey’s bombing of PKK targets also seeks to increase tension between local Kurds and the PKK and asked why Turkey chose to bomb an area with many civilians present

Turkish airstrikes in Northern Iraq are nothing new, but a coordinated air and ground assault is unprecedented. The number of civilian casualties during the recent bombardments have been higher than usual, with four civilians killed near Shiladze. In January 2019, six civilians were killed by Turkish bombing in Shiladze, with a further two killed when angry civilians stormed the local Turkish military base in protest at the presence of both the PKK and Turkish forces.

Official responses from the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) were muted. A KRG spokesperson called on Turkey and the PKK to respect the KRG’s sovereignty and leave the area, but the KRG government certainly knows that there is little it can do to persuade either Turkey or the PKK to give up their decades-long conflict. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Iraqi Kurdish security forces had arrested a photojournalist connected to a pro-PKK media site.

Reports from other areas of the KRG show civilians wounded, and Kurdish journalist Newroz Sinjari told me that airstrikes targeted Sinjar, a mountainous area where Yazidis have been slowly returning after having been ethnically cleansed and massacred by ISIS in 2014-15. This airstrike near Makhmour refugee camp is almost 200 kilometres from the Turkish border. While the PKK itself is not said to be present in Sinjar, an affiliated local group was set up there with backing from the PKK, according to Sinjari.

As well as disrupting the return of Yazidis to Sinjar, the Assyrian community of Northern Iraq have also been displaced by the Turkish bombing. The Assyrian village of Sharanish was hit during bombing on 14 June which destroyed a meeting hall and a water and electricity distribution system.

Writer Jil Swani shared a video of his brother playing with his children in Kani Masi, a tourist area, when an airstrike hit nearby.

Local residents claim that the airstrike targeted a car with PKK members, killing two and wounding six. Reports suggested that Turkey bombed the car with PKK members as it was entering the tourist area of Kani Masi where civilians were present. Newroz Sinjari told me that Kurds have often complained that Turkey’s bombing of PKK targets also seeks to increase tension between local Kurds and the PKK and asked why Turkey chose to bomb an area with many civilians present.

Turkey continued its bombing in the KRG by targeting the towns of Behdinan, Batufe and Derkare 2 July and Deraluk and Shiladze districts on 3 July.

Although it is now common for Turkey to bomb areas in the Kurdistan Region, the new offensive is more intense and widespread than previous limited bombing campaigns, and one of its side effects is to terrorize the local population. 

With a military presence now in Syria’s Afrin province and along the northern border of Syria, and now increased intervention in Northern Iraq, it looks as though Turkey is making a concerted effort to divide Kurdish political factions both geographically and politically. Iraq’s Kurdish president Barham Salih demanded that Turkey cease its incursion into Iraq, and the central government sent border guards to five positions near the border town of Zakho.

It is true that the influence of the PKK and affiliate groups in Iraq has grown in recent years. The willingness of the KRG to tolerate Turkish military bases in its territory angers local Kurds, and it’s therefore ironic that the presence of Turkish military forces could even encourage support for the PKK in Iraq.

Turkey’s long-term aim seems clear: to stop any Kurdish faction becoming too powerful and to keep them disunited to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan. With military commitments now in Libya, Syria and Iraq, Turkey may be overstretching itself, and its government is gambling that the move will not cause significant diplomatic, security or economic consequences.