A Military Analysis of Turkey’s Incursion into Northern Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 5

The recently concluded eight-day Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq marks the beginning of a new phase in Turkey’s nearly 24 year-old struggle against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Despite the Turkish military’s claims to have inflicted high casualties and severe damage to the PKK’s infrastructure in the region, in the medium term the greatest impact of the operation is likely to be psychological.

The incursion was the first major Turkish ground operation into northern Iraq in over a decade and followed over two months of aerial bombardments of PKK camps and bases in the region. By launching a ground operation in winter, when most of the mountainous terrain was still deep in snow, the Turkish military forced the PKK onto the defensive by demonstrating that organization’s presence in northern Iraq is no longer immune to attack—whether by land or from the air—at any time of the year.

Following an eight-hour artillery and aerial bombardment of suspected PKK positions, Turkish ground forces crossed the border into Iraq on the evening of February 21. Initial Turkish press reports suggested a large-scale invasion by at least two brigades, comprising 10,000 troops backed by tanks and targeting a range of PKK positions along the Iraqi-Turkish border. There was even speculation that the ultimate target was the PKK’s main bases and training camps deep in the Qandil mountains of northeast Iraq, some 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the Turkish border.

However, following the withdrawal of Turkish troops on February 29, it became clear that the operation had been much more limited in size and intent. At a press conference on March 3, Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit announced that only “one regiment”—which in Turkey consists of three battalions—had been airlifted into northern Iraq and that no tanks or other vehicles had crossed the border (Radikal, Milliyet, Hurriyet, March 4). He also said that the operation had been concentrated in the Zap region of northern Iraq, close to the Turkish border town of Cukurca. The camps and caves in the valleys and ravines of the Zap region have long been one of the PKK’s most important forward bases and served as a platform for infiltrations into Turkey. It appears that the Turkish forces penetrated a maximum of 9-10 miles (approximately 15 kilometers) into Iraq.

The Turkish media later reported that the three battalions comprised a total of 1,400 commandos drawn from the Turkish Second Army and the Gendarmerie. They are reported to have been airlifted in stages across the border into the foothills of the Zap region by around 30 S70 Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopters, after which they marched toward the PKK camps on foot (Milliyet, March 5). Photographs released by the Turkish General Staff (TGS) showed the commandos dressed for winter warfare, carrying their own supplies and equipped with night vision goggles.

Defining the Aims of the Turkish General Staff

During the operation, the TGS refused to confirm or deny reports in the Turkish media about the size or targets of the incursion. This now appears to have been part of a deliberate policy to confuse the PKK and disrupt its response. At his press conference on March 3, Buyukanit noted that deception was one of the arts of war. He said that in the run-up to the incursion, the Turkish military had tried to divert attention from the coming attack on the Zap region by bombing PKK positions around Avasin. It also attempted to move tanks out of its base in Bamerni in northern Iraq—which is around 40 miles (64 kilometers) to the west of the Zap region and one of four semi-permanent Turkish military bases established in northern Iraq in 1997—in order to persuade the PKK that some form of operation in the vicinity was pending (Radikal, March 4).

Buyukanit said that intelligence reports indicated that around 300 PKK militants were located in the Zap region immediately prior to the incursion. He claimed that during the eight days of the operation the Turkish military had killed 240 of the militants, mostly during night attacks. On the Turkish side, 24 soldiers and three members of the Village Guards militia are reported to have died. Buyukanit also said that, in addition to the element of surprise, one of the reasons for the TGS’s decision to launch the attack in winter was that the snow made it very difficult for the PKK to use its stocks of explosives. According to the general, ground and air attacks resulted in the partial or total destruction of 126 caves, 290 shelters, 12 command centers, six training centers, 23 logistical facilities, 29 signals and communications facilities, 40 trenches and 59 anti-aircraft emplacements (Hurriyet, Sabah, Milliyet, Radikal, March 4); the figures have not been independently confirmed. The TGS has not released information on the quantities of arms and logistical supplies seized or destroyed during the operation.

In a statement posted on its website, the TGS insisted that the aim of the operation was to destabilize rather than to destroy the PKK. “It is not possible to completely destroy the terrorist organization through a single operation,” it said. “But it showed the organization that northern Iraq is not a safe haven for terrorists” (tsk.mil.tr, February 29). “We needed to give [them] a lesson and we did,” added Buyukanit at his press conference on March 3. “This was not the last. We shall give them other lessons. Operations will continue as the need arises” (Radikal, Hurriyet, March 4).

The PKK Claims a Victory

The limited scope of the operation has enabled the PKK to dispute the TGS’s version of events. Since the Turkish military withdrew, PKK websites have been lauding what they describe as the organization’s heroic resistance. The PKK’s military wing, the People’s Defense Forces (HPG), has claimed it repulsed a Turkish attempt to push deeper into northern Iraq toward the PKK’s headquarters in the Qandil mountains, killing over 130 Turkish soldiers (HPG Press Bureau, March 3). From his hideout in the Qandil Mountains, Murat Karayilan, the chairman of the PKK Executive Committee and currently the most powerful individual in the organization, described the incursion as a major PKK victory (Rizgarionline, March 3).

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the incursion came as a shock to the PKK and will force it to reconsider its deployments close to the Iraqi-Turkish border, perhaps distributing its forces and supply depots more thinly and relocating some of them deeper into northern Iraq. The movement is probably already re-establishing some form of presence in the Zap region and has traditionally had little difficulty in rebuilding its supplies or recruiting new members. In fact, previous large-scale attacks by the Turkish military have tended to produce an increase in the number of young Kurds seeking to join the organization.

Despite its claims to have repulsed the Turkish incursion, the PKK will feel under pressure to demonstrate its continued capabilities by staging some form of operation inside Turkey. The organization has always attached considerable importance to its claim to be the sole legitimate representative of Turkey’s Kurds. Maintaining this claim involves intimidating and assassinating potential rivals; not least in order to ensure that, should the Turkish government ever decide to enter into negotiations over the rights and freedoms of its Kurdish minority, the PKK is its natural interlocutor.

Opening the Urban Front

The PKK’s claim to pre-eminence has always been based on its use of violence. However, a combination of being forced onto the defensive in northern Iraq in preparation for expected future Turkish incursions and the disruption and damage caused by the military operations themselves is likely to reduce, though not eradicate, its ability to return to the offensive when the spring thaw melts the snow in the mountain passes along the Iraqi-Turkish border. However, the PKK probably now poses a greater threat not in its traditional battlegrounds in the mountains of southeastern Turkey but in the cities, including the metropolises in the west of the country, not so much in its own right but in its potential to trigger a violent Turkish nationalist backlash through mass demonstrations or a high-casualty bombing.

Until recently, the PKK’s urban bombing campaign consisted primarily of small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) built around a few kilos of A4 or C4 explosives. Since fall 2007, however, the organization has demonstrated a new willingness to inflict mass casualties. On January 4 it detonated a car bomb outside a school in Diyarbakir (see Terrorism Focus, January 8). In recent months Turkish security forces have seized large quantities of artificial fertilizers which are believed to have been stockpiled by the PKK for use in vehicle-delivered IEDs. After the Turkish military launched its ground operation on February 21, the PKK warned that it would step up its urban bombing campaign inside Turkey if Ankara persisted with its attacks on the organization in northern Iraq (Firat News Agency, February 24).

PKK supporters staged a series of demonstrations across Turkey even after the Turkish military began to withdraw from northern Iraq on February 29. On March 1, more than 1,000 PKK supporters clashed with police in Diyarbakir (DHA, March 1). On the same day, police defused an IED which had been left at a bus stop in Adana (Vatan, March 2). On March 2, police broke up a demonstration of 500 PKK supporters who had tried to march to Taksim Square in the center of Istanbul (Radikal, Milliyet, Hurriyet, March 3). On the same day, more than 30 people were arrested during violent clashes at a rally by PKK supporters in the city of Batman (DHA, March 2). More protests can be expected in the weeks ahead, particularly in the run-up to the Kurdish New Year on March 21.

At the press conference on March 3, Turkish Land Forces Commander General Ilker Basbug called for the government to take measures to address the often desperate socio-economic conditions in southeastern Turkey that ensure a steady supply of recruits to the PKK. “They are poor, unemployed and without hope,” said Basbug. “These uneducated children believe the propaganda. Unfortunately, there is no counter-propaganda from the government. Economic measures must be taken which reach these children. Measures must be taken to bring them down from the mountains” (Radikal, Milliyet, March 4).

But Cemil Cicek, the spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), dismissed suggestions that the government was contemplating any new policy initiative. “Nobody should expect us to announce a special package of measures to bring the terrorists down from the mountains,” he said. “If we do, then the terrorist organization will claim ‘if it wasn’t for me then these measures wouldn’t have been taken’.” (Radikal, March 4).


The Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq has probably achieved its primary purpose of destabilizing the PKK and forcing it onto the defensive by demonstrating the vulnerability of its camps and bases in northern Iraq to both air and ground assault. Further Turkish commando raids can be expected. Although it would be technically difficult, the PKK will now no longer feel safe from an airborne commando raid against its headquarters deep in the Qandil mountains. However, most subsequent Turkish ground operations are likely to focus on the region closer to the Iraqi-Turkish border, particularly areas which have traditionally been used as springboards for PKK infiltrations into Turkey.

The PKK launched a series of mass attacks against military targets inside Turkey in fall 2007 in the apparent knowledge that, although it would suffer heavy losses, the killing of a large number of Turkish soldiers would increase the pressure both on the civilian government and the TGS to strike at the organization’s camps and bases in northern Iraq. The PKK appears to have calculated that the United States would intervene to prevent Turkey from launching any cross-border operations, thus handing the organization a major propaganda victory by demonstrating Turkey’s impotence. These hopes received a major blow in November 2007 when the United States agreed to begin providing Turkey with actionable intelligence, which the TGS subsequently used to launch a series of air strikes against PKK positions in northern Iraq, later demolished completely by the ground operation of February 21-29.

Further Turkish commando raids will degrade, though not destroy, the PKK’s infrastructure in northern Iraq and its ability to infiltrate militants into Turkey. Given the failure of its change of strategy in fall 2007, the PKK is likely to return to the tactics it has used since resuming its insurgency in 2004: namely, concentrating primarily on the use of land mines, sniper fire, ambushes and guerrilla raids by small units of 6-8 militants.

Despite the bravado of its public rhetoric, the PKK is aware that it is unlikely ever to defeat the Turkish military on the battlefield. Its main aim appears to be to engage in a long-term campaign of attrition in the hope that continued violence will eventually persuade the Turkish authorities to open political negotiations. But there is currently no indication that Ankara is prepared to negotiate with the PKK. As a result, there is a danger that frustration might lead the PKK to try to raise the stakes by shifting the main focus of its campaign away from the mountains and onto the streets of Turkey’s cities by attempting to provoke ethnic clashes between Turks and Kurds. In recent years, there has been a marked increase in aggressive nationalism among both Turks and Kurds. To date, the Turkish authorities have been remarkably successful in preventing ethnic tensions from escalating into inter-communal violence. But the danger remains.