Expect more Turkish operations taking place simultaneously in Iraq and Syria. The Turkish military launched Operation Winter Eagle this week, destroying PKK terrorists’ shelters, hideouts, and caves in northern Iraq. The first of its kind, the operation is being carried out in both Sinjar, Iraq, and northern Syria’s Malikiyah and Mount Karachok, simultaneously targeting the PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the YPG. This may indicate the direction of Ankara’s upcoming operations against the PKK/YPG.
For years, the Turkish military has taken incremental steps to reduce the threat from the PKK. First, Turkish security forces drew the group out of Turkiye, and then targeted its bases in northern Iraq. While the Kurdish Peshmerga forces assisted the Turkish army from the south by cutting off the PKK’s supply line, the Turkish Armed Forces built up bases in the north, and used drones for aerial surveillance and to strike PKK targets. Thanks to these successful military operations, the PKK was stripped of its supply lines from Iraq into Turkiye, and has since been unable to conduct any significant attacks inside Turkish territory.
As predicted, with drones and checkpoints acting as the blueprint for Ankara’s success against the PKK in Iraq, the group lost its control over the mountainous border region. Currently, it only has operational capacity in areas located further south – in the Gara, Qandil, Sinjar, and Makhmour Mountains in Iraq – and territorial control near the Turkish border in Syria. None of the PKK bases in Iraq have territorial links to Turkiye at the moment.
Operation Winter Eagle represents the next phase of this strategy. It appears that the Turkish Armed Forces may increase pressure on the PKK primarily through its air force. Turkiye may try to galvanise the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga to enter PKK-held regions by land and retake control of their sovereign territory.
With Turkish encouragement – and its own self-interest – the Iraqi army recently pushed into the Sinjar region and arrested several PKK militants. The Iraqi Central Government had signed an accord with the Kurdish Regional Government in October, which had foreseen the entry of the Iraqi army into Sinjar to push out the PKK.
Turkish airstrikes will help to weaken the PKK and aid the Iraqi authorities’ attempts to ensure safety and security by forcing the group out of the country. Ankara’s airstrikes in Iraq are aimed at disrupting the terror organisation’s capacity and reminding the Iraqi public of the group’s presence. By transferring military actions into political capital, the Turkish government may seek to encourage the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga to take further action.
This Turkish strategy is not unchallenged, however. The Iranian-backed elements in Iraq are shielding the PKK in the country: Qais al Khazali, leader of the Iraqi resistance group Asaib al Haq, has strongly condemned the Turkish operation and threatened: “The time will come when the resistance of Iraq [will teach Turkiye] harsh lessons.”
Therefore, internal Iraqi politics will be of utmost importance for Ankara. Muqtada al Sadr’s recent poll victory, the strengthening of the Sunni political parties, and the Kurdish KDP are all in the interest of the Turkish government to balance Iran’s presence in Iraq. Tehran, meanwhile, views the PKK as a bulwark against Turkiye. Therefore, the success of new anti-PKK operations will depend on an entirely different geopolitical balance of power between Turkiye and Iran.
If Turkiye succeeds, the de-facto regional alliance against the PKK between the northern Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, the Syrian Interim Government, and Turkiye may expand to include the Iraqi Central Government as well. Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said that Turkiye is ready for full cooperation and coordination with Baghdad in its fight against the PKK. If this materialises, by the end of 2022, the PKK could be limited to the Qandil Mountains. To prevent this, the PKK will bet on Iran’s leverage in Iraqi politics.
On the other side of the border, Turkish airstrikes against the YPG in Syria as part of Operation Winter Eagle are a strong sign that military operations will run in parallel with Ankara’s statements that the YPG and the PKK are the same. Until now, Turkish security forces have targeted the YPG in Syria and the PKK in Iraq in separate military operations. After this week, it is likely that simultaneous targeting of the groups will continue into the spring and summer.
Since August 2021, Turkish security forces have targeted senior YPG terrorists with precise drone strikes to undermine the command capacity of the militants. Moreover, the targeting of senior members of the PKK/YPG in Syria and Iraq serves the goal of disrupting the command structure and the operational capability of the organisation. The drone strikes also help Turkiye to heighten and exploit the differences and the rivalry between the old leadership in Qandil and the younger YPG generation in Syria.
The YPG’s response to Ankara’s two-pronged strategy hints that Turkiye is headed in the right direction. The day after the strikes, the group targeted Syrian civilians in Al Bab with rockets. The PKK/YPG has repeatedly targeted Syrian civilians with car bombs since it lost its capacity to conduct suicide or car bomb attacks in Turkiye. In the past, it would also have tried to attack the Turkish military. The attack on Al Bab shows that the PKK/YPG has lost this capacity and is therefore ‘limiting’ itself to attacks against Syrian civilians. The Syrian Interim Government responded to the attack by the YPG on Al Bab, and the Syrian National Army bombed YPG positions in the region. The Turkish Armed Forces prevented other attempts by the YPG in Syria and eliminated 43 YPG terrorists.
One should expect the YPG to increase its attacks against Syrian civilians with the growing pressure on the PKK in Iraq, which in turn will facilitate a Turkish-Syrian military operation against the YPG in Syria. While the move by CENTCOM to open the airspace for Russia might have postponed the operation in 2021, the military operation itself remains inevitable.