Turkish forces launched a fresh assault on the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) movement in northern Iraq last week. This latest offensive follows the February “Claw Eagle 2” action in Gare, in which Ankara’s forces failed in their attempt to free 13 PKK prisoners kept in the Dohuk sector. Airdrops of commando powers into the Zap, Metina, and Avashin areas are part of the action, called “Claw Lightning” and “Claw Thunderbolt.”
They form part of a pattern of intensified Turkish military activity in northern Iraq over the last six months. This, in turn, is an element in a broader strategy of assertion through military force undertaken by Ankara across a wide area over the last year. Active operations in cooperation with proxy elements have been undertaken in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey has also established a considerable military presence in Qatar.
Turkish activities in Iraq have a relevance beyond the immediate geographical context. This is because of what they reveal regarding the nature of Turkish ambitions in the surrounding areas, and what this in turn suggests regarding Turkey’s role as an ostensible Western ally in the period ahead.
The basic question that needs to be addressed is whether Turkey wants to or is capable of playing a role in halting Iran’s progress through Iraq and the Levant, into the Mediterranean Sea and Israel.
Turkey’s latest operations in Iraq are aimed squarely at the PKK. The aim is to prevent the group from allowing its fighters to travel freely from its headquarters in the Qandil Mountains, which are situated in the tri-border region between Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, to the Iraqi-Syrian border and the 30 percent of Syria occupied by Syrian Kurds. The Turkish government considers the US-backed governing authority in that region to be nothing more than a front for the PKK.
Turkey fears the establishment of a large, de facto, PKK-dominated area stretching from Qandil all the way to northwest Syria. The “Claw’ operations in northern Iraq thus form part of the series of military incursions undertaken by Turkey since 2016 with the intention of dividing the area of Kurdish domination into manageable chunks.
Militarily, all these operations may be regarded as qualified successes. The Kurdish fighters lack the ability to hold the Turkish Army back in conventional operations. In addition, in the Iraqi context, the extensive Turkish use of drones has struck a severe blow to the previous main advantage enjoyed by the PKK fighters: their superior knowledge of the terrain, and consequent ability to move through it without being detected by Turkish forces.
Turkey has now committed significant powers to these de facto defence areas in Iraq and Syria. Arzu Yilmaz, a Turkish scholar interviewed this week on Al-Monitor.com, reported that about 5,000 Turkish troops are stationed in Iraq. The number of Turkish troops in Syria ranges between 12k and 20k. They are backed up by F-16 fighter jets, artillery, and drones. In northern Iraq, a network of checkpoints and outposts has been created. Suleyman Soylu, Turkey’s Interior Minister, said this week that the Turks plan to establish a base at Metina. This will be in addition to the approximate 37 military positions created by Turkey on Iraqi Kurdistan’s soil since the start of the “Claw” operations.
Most of these positions cluster close to the border, while some extend as far as 40 kilometers (25 miles) into Iraq. It is noteworthy that these incursions are carried out without consultation with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq, whose armed forces are responsible for security on the border.
According to KRG sources interviewed for this report, the operations are part of a Turkish attempt to transform the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq into a Turkish satrapy. According to this viewpoint, the PKK threat serves as a convenient excuse for this reason.
SO, WHAT wider geopolitical lessons can be drawn from Turkey’s recent intervention in these adjacent, partly fractured Arab countries? Is the Turkish trend of assertiveness an indication that Ankara might serve as a counterweight to Iran’s ambitions in these areas?
In so far as the Turkish and Iranian projects physically impinge on one another, the result will be localized tensions. This is visible, for example (for now, it is the only real example) in the Sinjar area, on the Syrian-Iraqi border.
Turkey wants control of this region as part of its attempts to break off Qandil and the PKK from the Kurdish north-east of Syria. Iran also needs to monitor it as an entrance point into Syria. In recent weeks, there have been reports of a big Turkish operation in the region. However, due to the possible military and political repercussions, such an action remains impossible. As long as Turkey restricts its operations to the PKK and the KRG, neither Baghdad nor Tehran can object seriously. Indeed, these two capitals share a political opposition to Kurdish ambitions with Ankara. Sinjar, on the other hand, would be a step too fast.
Turkey has less clearly defined ambitions in the wider Mosul area, which Turkish nationalists remember as the former Ottoman vilayet of Mosul. But here, too, the issue is wrapped up with the desire to limit Kurdish autonomy.
Despite these local tensions, Turkey and Iran are not on a collision course. The interests of these countries in the related areas do not, for the most part, clash or impinge on one another. The Iranian mission further south is not a hindrance to Ankara’s goals against the Kurds. The same is true of Iran’s aspirations to enter the Mediterranean and establish a front against Israel. Turkey has had to drop its previous dreams of deposing Assad and replacing him with a Sunni Islamist government. Similarly, the Turks are marginal players in Baghdad politics, providing scant assistance to a number of Sunni Arab and Turkmen politicians.
Ankara and Tehran do not want a secure Iraq or Syria. On the opposite, the countries’ fragmentation benefits both. Both are content to have vulnerable neighbours whose territories can be easily invaded. They are more involved in snatching different swaths of territory. Iran is busy establishing paramilitary control zones in order to move arms and men to Lebanon and Israel. It is infiltrating both countries’ formal policy institutions. Ankara has neither the ability nor the resources to respond to this. Meanwhile, its own zones of influence in northern Syria and Iraq are not critical to this Iranian mission.
In these regions, Ankara cannot even serve as a bulwark against Russia. On the opposite, its fiefdoms in Syria depend on Russian cooperation and goodwill. Indeed, Moscow sees the provision of this goodwill as a valuable means of luring Turkey away from the West and NATO.
Ankara’s and Tehran’s new orientations are similar in several respects. Both countries are former colonies, and both are dominated by governments that combine political Islam with a kind of colonial revanchism. For both nations, this entails resistance to the weakening US-led international order and a willingness to benefit from its demise. However, for the time being, their projects will largely coexist, like parallel crescents. Anyone expecting that Ankara will be involved in maintaining regional order in the face of Iran is not looking closely enough at the facts on the ground.