Claw-Lock: An Assessment of Turkish Counter-PKK Operations in Northern Iraq in 2022

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 16

Turkish soldiers (Source:

Turkish military operations against Kurdish Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan, or PKK) militants inside northern Iraq have evolved since the 1990s from large, ponderous, marginally effective incursions into a combination of semi-permanent screening operations with more precise strikes and raids. The shift, facilitated in large measure by Turkish drones and growing political coordination with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has enabled Ankara to move most counter-PKK operations off of Turkish soil and nearer to PKK bases inside Iraq. Coupled with similar operations in Syria, this forward strategy has enabled Turkish military and security forces to roughly triple their operational lethality against the PKK, which places pressure on the Turkish- and U.S-designated terrorist organization’s leadership cadres and has significantly reduced the number of PKK attacks within Türkiye (Al-Monitor, July 7, 2021).

The Claw Series of Operations

Earlier Turkish operations in Iraq, including Steel (1995), Hammer and Dawn (1997), Sun (2008) and smaller, unnamed operations typically involved large but brief ground incursions and wide-ranging airstrikes based on rudimentary target intelligence. These operations temporarily disrupted PKK attacks into Türkiye, but neither secured Turkish territory nor significantly degraded PKK freedom of movement in Iraq (Washington Post, July 7, 1995). In the aftermath of the U.S. Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) and counter-Islamic State (IS) campaign in Iraq (2014-onward) however, PKK control and activity along the Iraq-Türkiye border increased, leading Ankara to reassess its operational approach (Middle East Policy, November 8, 2021).

The new approach combined fixed and temporary ground locations with continuous surveillance and strikes from Turkish drones, with an estimated 5,000-10,000 Turkish troops on the ground at nearly three dozen sites (SWP, May 30). This approach impeded PKK attacks into Türkiye itself, but also hindered movement between PKK headquarters in Qandil, Iraq and PKK affiliates’ bases in northeast Syria. At the same time, it enabled Turkish forces to surveil strike PKK facilities, small units, and leaders more effectively.

A series of operations designated “Claw” was launched according to the new operational concept, beginning with Claw 1 in May 2019 directed at caves, depots, and routes in the Hakurk region of northeast Iraq (Sabah, June 13, 2019). Other operations in the series include the following (Ministry of Defense, April 2020 and Oryx, April 30, 2021):

  • Summer 2019: Claw 2 and Claw 3, targeting deeper into Iraq, including Sinat-Haftanin.
  • Summer 2020: Claw Eagle (airstrikes) and Claw Tiger (ground forces).
  • February 2021: Claw Eagle 2, airstrikes and failed hostage rescue raid in Gara range.
  • Summer 2021: Claw Lightning (Metina area) and Claw Thunderbolt (Avashin-Basyan area) clearing operations against PKK cave complexes used for launching attacks, logistics, transportation, and training.

The Claw series has succeeded in limiting PKK freedom of maneuver, creating a buffer zone that protects Turkish territory from PKK infiltration and attacks, and pressuring Erbil and Baghdad to crack down on PKK use of Iraqi territory to launch attacks against Turkish forces and territory. (Kurdpress, January 5, 2021). Further, Claw has established a network of bases and operations that can reach deeply into areas previously considered safe havens for PKK (Rudaw, July 6, 2020). Turkish official figures from June describe the Claw series as comprising hundreds of tactical engagements which have “neutralized” 1,130 PKK fighters, improved Turkish border security, and severely damaged PKK logistical capabilities (Kahraman, June 7).

Operation Claw-Lock

The 2022 Claw operation – Claw Lock (Pençe Kilit) – began on April 18. The main assault involved air and artillery strikes, augmented by commando and Special Forces landings in the PKK’s operational heartland in Iraq, including the cave complexes and entrenchments of Metina, Zap, and Avashin-Basyan (Soylu, April 18). By the end of July, the Turkish Ministry of Defense estimated PKK losses at 289 slain fighters and 330 destroyed caves and bunkers (Hurriyet, July 23).

Alongside the military operation, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) has led to remote tracking and airstrikes against High Value Targets (HVTs), who are normally senior field and political leaders. By the end of July, MIT had carried out at least 22 such strikes, removing 25 HVTs operating in Syria and Iraq (Sozcu, July 26). MIT focuses these operations on fighters with “blood on their hands” from terror attacks on Turkish soil (Sozcu, July 21). Forces from the Ministry of Interior, especially Jandarma units, continue to conduct operations within Türkiye that complement the cross-border operations. One example is the ongoing “Eren Abluka 28” operation currently ongoing near Diyarbakir, which is aimed at flushing out residual PKK elements on Turkish soil (Anadolu, July 31).

The PKK portrays the Claw operations as a campaign of genocide against the “Medya Defense Zones,” which is their term for areas of northern Iraq beyond central or regional government control. The PKK sees these zones as critical to bringing down the government in Ankara, which confirms the linkage between PKK operations in the two countries (Calkurd, August 1). However, the majority of Turks remain opposed to the PKK, and 54,000 Kurds have been fighting to defend the Turkish state under the Village Guards program, although Kurdish electoral support remains roughly divided between pro-government (AKP) and PKK-aligned (HDP) parties (Al-Monitor, January 24, 2018; VOA, November 13, 2019; K24, April 11, 2019). The PKK, therefore, sustains its armed struggle in part through forced conscription of child soldiers, and despite strict discipline and ideological training, it continues to see a steady defection rate of roughly ten fighters per month (A News, June 13 and Sozcu, August 1).


Ankara’s forward strategy as operationalized in the Claw campaign has put the PKK under significant pressure in the field, but at a price. The human cost includes approximately ten fatalities among Turkish state security forces during typical operations, and a higher number of injuries (ICG, July 18). The financial cost of the Claw operations has helped drive a rise in overall defense and security expenditures, though these have remained relatively steady as a portion of Turkish GDP (Insight, September 23, 2020).

There have, however, been few domestic political costs, as the Turkish public general accepts the operations as prudent and necessary. Yet regional tensions with Iran, and periodically with Baghdad and Erbil, have increased (K24, April 21 and National Interest, May 11). Alleged collateral damage and civilian deaths during Claw operations have prompted criticism from human rights advocates, though Ankara asserts its operations are conducted scrupulously and with increasing precision (CPT, July 4 and Middle East Eye, July 22). A July 2022 civilian casualty event near Zakho, Iraq prompted Iraq’s foreign minister to demand in an emergency UN Security Council meeting the withdrawal of all Turkish forces from Iraq. However, the paucity of presented evidence coupled with a Turkish offer of a joint investigation and a new political crisis in Baghdad have made further action unlikely (Al Arabiya, July 27 and Reuters, August 1). The regional fallout has been more rhetorical than real, as leaders in Baghdad and Erbil feel compelled to reflect public anger when it spikes but seem intent on maintaining proper working relations with Ankara (Deutsche Welle, July 27).

In aggregate, none of the costs outweigh the benefits of more safety and security within Turkish national borders and losses and disorder among PKK fighting elements and fear and disruption among PKK leadership levels. Turkish military, intelligence, and interior security forces have taken the PKK campaign largely off of Turkish soil and into PKK transit and base areas through a more comprehensive strategy integrating new technologies, operating concepts, and cooperative arrangements (TAP, January 11). Claw Lock represents neither the final answer in the counter-PKK approach nor the death-knell of the PKK, as both the opponent and the strategy will continue to evolve. It does represent an effective application of counter-terror and counter-insurgent methods that has achieved significant, if not yet decisive, effects.