Turkey Eyes a Military Incursion Into Iraq
Erdogan is threatening to go after the PKK in Sinjar
Turkey announced the official end of its Euphrates Shield incursion into Syria as March 2017 came to a close. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already suggested that future Turkish operations will “not [only have] a Syrian dimension, [but] also an Iraqi dimension.”
“There are the Tal Afar and Sinjar situations,” Erdogan elaborated. “We also have kin in Mosul.”
This isn’t the first time Erdogan has suggested expanding Turkey’s incursion into Syria into parts of Iraq as well. In October 2016, Turkish troops approached the Iraqi border, and Erdogan warned the—predominantly Shia—Hashd Al Shaabi paramilitaries not to harm Sunni Turkmen in Tal Afar.
Turkish Foreign Minister Numan Kurtulmus also demanded that Mosul remain a Sunni Arab-majority city after the Iraqi army defeats the Islamic State.
Erdogan has said on numerous occasions that the Turkish military will occupy Iraq’s Sinjar region if the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, retains a presence there.
“We will go on this [Operation Euphrates Shield] campaign in Syria and Iraq, and now in Kirkuk, Mosul, Tal Afar and Sinjar,” Erdogan declared in October. “Why? Sinjar is about to be the new Qandil [for PKK]. Thus, we cannot allow it to happen in Sinjar, because there is PKK there.”
YPG fighters. Kurdishstruggle photo via Flickr
The PKK, which has fought a guerrilla war against the Turkish state for more than two decades, has maintained an important base of operations in the Qandil Mountains.
Continued U.S. support for the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, against ISIS, and the deployment of American and Russian troops to the city of Manbij—as well as Russian troops to the northwestern Syrian-Kurdish Afrin Canton—has severely limited Turkey’s ability to confront the YPG.
Turkey achieved its objective of removing ISIS from right across its border. But this means Turkey’s pretext to remain in Syria on security grounds has greatly diminished.
With no option to advance deeper into Syria for the foreseeable future, it makes sense for Ankara to increase pressure on the PKK in Sinjar. The PKK’s continued presence there—established to halt ISIS’s genocidal assault of the Yezidis—is widely opposed by the United States and Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government.
A diplomatic solution is now much more difficult in light of a serious clash between the KRG-backed Rojava Peshmerga forces—an army of Syrian Kurds trained by the KRG who are unable to return home given the opposition of the authorities there—and a PKK-trained Yezidi militia in early March.
The PKK itself seems to believe Turkey is planning an offensive in coordination with the KRG. The Iraq-based Rudaw news agency reported that the PKK is digging tunnels for explosives and mines in preparation for such an attack.
Given Turkey’s many past incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan to attack the PKK—and its frequent air strikes against the PKK in Qandil—such an operation, even with a sizable ground component, would likely prove easier on the political front than any confrontation against the Hashd Al Shaabi in Tal Afar, or anywhere else in Iraq’s northwest Nineveh province.
Relations between Ankara and Baghdad are in much better shape today than they were last year. The two countries had a diplomatic falling out over Turkey’s unauthorized deployment of troops to the Bashiqa training camp near Mosul in late 2015. This culminated in a bitter exchange last October when Erdogan told Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi to “know his place.”
Iraq has since sought to reassure Turkey that the Hashd will not enter Tal Afar, and that Sunni Turkmen have nothing to fear. Unless Hashd paramilitaries launch a unilateral attack on Tal Afar without authorization from Baghdad, Turkey is unlikely to have any sufficient pretext to roll its tanks over the border.
The Islamic State, and Syrian-Kurdish forces in separate incidents, destroyed at least 11 Turkish tanks—aged M-60 Pattons and even tougher Leopard IIs—with anti-tank missiles during Euphrates Shield. Turkey ended that operation after losing 67 of its soldiers and 600 allied Syrian militiamen.
In turn, Turkish troops with air and artillery support killed an estimated 3,000 ISIS fighters.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. U.S. State Department photo
It’s unclear how costly a Turkish military attack on the PKK in Sinjar may prove, especially if carried out in tandem with an assault on Qandil. Metin Gurcan, a Turkish military specialist, has written recently about the PKK’s increasing anti-tank capabilities, which could pose a formidable threat.
All of Turkey’s past incursions into Iraq focused solely on combating the PKK. Turkey has never sent military forces into Iraq for other reasons, with the exception of its aforementioned deployment to train Sunni-Arab Nineveh Guard militiamen in Bashiqa—and even that was initially established as one of Turkey’s forward operating bases against the PKK in the region back in the 1990s.
Turkey’s largest campaigns against the PKK were operations Steel, Hammer and Dawn during the mid-1990s, and included approximately 30,000 troops each time—with the exception of Operation Dawn in which about half that many troops participated.
None of these operations managed to decisively rout the PKK from its entrenched mountain positions.
Turkey also suffered similar numbers of casualties in these operations—64 soldiers killed in Operation Steel, 114 in Hammer and 31 in Dawn—to Euphrates Shield, a much longer operation which involved far fewer Turkish troops.
A PKK fighter. Kurdishstruggle photo via Flickr
Turkey has shied away when the PKK wasn’t involved. During the build-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Ankara made clear it would not function as a second front against the Iraqis. The Western powers handsomely compensated its loss of bilateral trade with Iraq by providing a $9 billion arms package to the Turkish military consisting of hundreds of tanks—600 M-60 Pattons and 400 Leopards along with 700 armored personnel carriers—plus Cobra attack helicopters and F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers.
Then Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal said the deal made Turkey one of “the most powerful and modern” military powers in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Ankara did not participate in the war against Saddam Hussein and said its deployment of 100,000 troops to the Turkish border with Iraq was enough.
In 2003, the United States hoped Turkey would provide a northern front for the invasion of Iraq. Turkey contemplated sending 40,000 troops into Northern Iraq—who would likely have focused on subduing Kurdish autonomy—but changed course after the parliament voted against it.
The United States consequently focused the invasion from the south. Ankara even forbid the United States from using the strategically important Incirlik Air Base, an issue Turkey has vacillated on for many years now. U.S. Special Forces which landed in Northern Iraq during the invasion did so from staging points in Romania.
Put simply and given the history, a Turkish incursion into Iraq will more likely than not focus on the PKK as its sole target. In other words, it would be business as usual.