Turkey Weighs Military Options Against PKK Camps in Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 33

Following the decision by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to create the legal framework for an armed incursion into northern Iraq, the Turkish military has begun to weigh its options for a military strike against the camps of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey has had a small semi-permanent military base in Iraq since the mid-1990s, when a brigade was deployed in the northwest of the country to monitor a cease-fire agreement following a war between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani. During the last 10 years, however, the base has been primarily used as a platform for surveillance and intelligence-gathering against PKK militants in the area. Although the base was recently upgraded, it is too small and situated too far from the PKK’s main camps to be able to play a significant role in any offensive action.

The PKK’s military wing, the People’s Defense Force (HPG), is currently believed to have a number of camps strung out through the mountains that straddle the border between Turkey and Iraq, including in Sinaht, Haftanin, Kanimasi and Zap (Milliyet, October 12). The camps, however, are mostly used as forward bases from which HPG militants infiltrate into Turkey. The units deployed there are highly mobile and the camps have only the minimum infrastructure.

The PKK leadership is located in the organization’s main camps in the Qandil Mountains of northeast Iraq, close to the country’s border with Iran. It is also here that the HPG conducts most of its specialized training, including that of the operatives used in its urban bombing campaign in western Turkey. Although the camps in the Qandil Mountains have a more developed infrastructure—including a field hospital, electricity generators and a large proportion of the PKK’s lethal and non-lethal supplies—they are scattered over a relatively large area deep in mountainous terrain more than 40 miles south of the Turkish border.

During the 1990s, Turkey conducted four major military cross-border operations against the PKK’s camps in northern Iraq. The Turkish security forces succeeded in killing a large number of PKK militants and capturing a substantial quantity of weapons and supplies, albeit at an official cost of nearly 1,000 casualties of their own. Yet, during the 1990s, the Turkish troops were assisted by the peshmerga, who were able not only to provide local knowledge, but to cut off the PKK’s lines of retreat. This time the peshmerga are resolutely opposed to any Turkish incursion and there have been reports in the Turkish media that they have begun to deploy, ready to confront any invading Turkish forces in the expectation that as soon as there was a clash the U.S. would intervene to halt the Turkish advance (Hurriyet, October 12-13).

In the run-up to the beginning of the 2003 Iraq intervention, the Turkish military updated its plans for a cross-border operation into northern Iraq in the expectation that Turkey would join the U.S. in opening a northern front against Saddam Hussein. Although the expectations came to nothing, the plans for an incursion have continued to be regularly updated. The Turkish military has also positioned itself logistically to be able to launch a cross-border operation within relatively short notice of receiving an order from the government.

Analysts in Turkey are in agreement that if the government does give the green light, the Turkish military will launch a combined air and ground operation in which ground troops will be deployed against the PKK’s forward bases in northwest Iraq, while F-16s will be used to bomb the organization’s camps in the Qandil Mountains (Milliyet, October 12). There have also been suggestions that the Turkish military would follow the F-16 bombing raids by using helicopters to airlift 4-5 teams of special forces, backed by Cobra attack helicopters, into the Qandil Mountains to destroy any remaining PKK forces and infrastructure (Sabah, October 11). Yet, there is no expectation that Turkey will launch a major ground offensive against the camps in the Qandil Mountains (Vatan, October 11).

There are signs that, regardless of whether it launches a major cross-border operation, Turkey will attempt to pressure the Iraqi Kurdish authorities into clamping down on PKK activities by applying economic sanctions. Turkey has already banned charter planes flying between northern Iraq and Europe from using Turkish airspace, forcing them to take a much longer route over Cyprus and Syria (Hurriyet, October 15). The Turkish authorities have also announced that in 2008 they will no longer export electricity to northern Iraq (Hurriyet, October 11). There have also been calls for Turkey to close its Habur border gate, which is the main conduit for foreign trade in and out of northern Iraq. However, there are concerns that closing the border would have a devastating impact on the economy of southeast Turkey and could exacerbate social alienation in a region which already supplies the PKK with the majority of its recruits (NTV, October 9).

Unlike the peshmerga, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears confident that if a cross-border operation is launched, the U.S. will do little but protest. On October 12, when asked by Turkish journalists whether Turkey would seek permission from Washington before launching a military strike, Erdogan retorted: “When they traveled thousands of kilometers to invade Iraq they didn’t ask anybody’s permission first. Why should we?” (NTV, October 12).

Nevertheless, there is also an awareness among many in the military that, regardless of Washington’s reaction, a cross-border military operation will not eradicate the PKK and that once the Turkish forces have withdrawn, the organization will be able to use the winter to restock its supplies and rebuild its infrastructure. Yet with public outrage at the continuing death toll in PKK attacks exacerbated by wounded national pride at the October 10 decision by the House Foreign Affairs Committee to characterize the killings of Armenians in World War I as a genocide, military efficacy may not be the deciding factor in whether or not Turkey decides to launch military operations. Whatever its final decision, the AKP government is under intense public pressure to take some form of action.