Turkish Airstrikes Drive Home Foreign Policy in Northern Iraq

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 18

Turkey appears to be using a two-pronged approach in its continuing efforts to drive the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from its refuges in northern Iraq. Following raids and incursions by Turkish land forces, Turkey’s air force is now driving home points being made in meetings with Iraqi and Kurdish Iraqi leaders.

In late April and early May, Turkish warplanes conducted two waves of airstrikes in northern Iraq against the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States. The first wave of airstrikes on April 25-26 targeted PKK militants in the Zap, Avashin and Khakurk regions who were trying to infiltrate across the border for attacks on Turkish territory, according to the Turkish General Staff (TGS) (Hurriyet, April 26). 43 Turkish warplanes took part in the attacks, reportedly destroying PKK control posts, anti-aircraft positions and logistical supply units while taking care not to harm the civilian population (Sabah, April 30; Hurriyet, April 26).

A second wave of airstrikes on the Qandil Mountains headquarters of the PKK came on May 1-2. According to an official statement from the TGS, the strikes “delivered a major blow to the PKK terrorist organization,” killing more than 150 PKK fighters while destroying 43 targets, including shelters, weapons depots and communications centers. The TGS suggested that the air operations caused “a great panic among the members of the terrorist organization” and that the dead included several “high-ranking leaders of the organization” (TGS BN – 33 / 08, tsk.mil.tr, May 3; Milliyet, May 3). Several reports from PKK spokesmen denied that anyone was hurt in the airstrikes, though one report acknowledged that six Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) guerrillas were killed (Sbay Media, May 4).

From a military strategy perspective, the psychological impact of these operations is at least as critical as the material damage. The tactical timing of the latest airstrikes coming ahead of an expected spring offensive by the PKK needs to be taken into account. According to retired Turkish Brigadier Haldun Solmazturk, who fought the PKK for a decade: “They [these airstrikes] are part of a policy to break the rebels’ will to fight … It [the Turkish military] will achieve above all a psychological effect that will carry the message to the PKK that northern Iraq is not a safe haven and it can be reached anytime by the Turkish state” (VOA, April 26). Effectively delivering this message is an essential element of Turkish counter-terrorism strategy in northern Iraq, both against the militants that are using the mountains of northern Iraq as their safe havens and against the Iraqi and regional authorities that, willingly or not, allow their territories to be used as safe havens by terrorists.

In the political arena, the airstrikes could not have been timelier. It is important to note that the first wave of airstrikes took place right after the 12th High Security Commission negotiations on counter-terrorism cooperation with Iran in Ankara (see Terrorism Focus, April 22). Thus, in addition to the Iranian shelling of PJAK targets in northern Iraq, the Turkish airstrikes demonstrated that joint counter-terrorism operations are practically feasible and can be effective. Furthermore, those bombing operations may progress to joint counter-terrorism ground operations in northern Iraq if the Iraqi authorities continue to turn a blind eye on the use of northern Iraq as a terrorist safe haven. Cooperation with Iran in this arena needs to be taken into account as it is, without exaggerating it as a sign of Turkey’s abandonment of the West for Iran.

On the domestic front, it is important to remember that foreign and security policies are considered as high-politics in Turkey. Thus, the recent domestic tensions with respect to the legal challenge seeking to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) need not be taken as a sign of any forthcoming major change in Turkish foreign policy toward Iraq. As Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan noted recently, “Turkey’s Iraq policy remains sustainable and independent from the rising domestic tension at home caused by the closure case filed to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party … We [Turkey] will continue to defend Iraq’s territorial integrity and political unity.” It is also important to remember that Babacan’s remarks, as well as the airstrikes, took place before the upcoming ministerial meeting of Iraq’s neighbors in Kuwait. Referring to this summit, Babacan said the U.S. strategy for Iraq in 2008 and Iraqi domestic regulations, such as the controversial oil law, would be on the agenda for the upcoming meeting, which “would table Iraq’s future” (Turkish Daily News, April 17). Therefore, before this meeting Turkey might have felt the need to remind the international community that it is not only an important and concerned neighbor of Iraq, but also, very critically, one that can take action alone if Iraqi authorities continue to harbor Kurdish militants in northern Iraq.

Also suggesting a political tie to the Turkish military strikes is the fact that the second wave of airstrikes started in the aftermath of the return of a Turkish delegation—including Turkey’s special envoy for Iraq, Murat Ozcelik, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief adviser, Ahmet Davutoglu—from a meeting in Baghdad’s “Green Zone” with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Necirvan Barzani, prime minister of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The airstrikes began right after the return of the delegation. It is important to note that these airstrikes came after the Turkish delegation delivered a message to both Iraqi and Kurdish regional authorities that “steps against the PKK will determine the framework of Turkish cooperation” (Sabah, May 2). Therefore, the precise timing of the airstrikes demonstrates Turkish resolution to back up its calls for counter-terrorism cooperation with action, if necessary.

On May 5, Foreign Minister Babacan made clear the conditional nature of future Iraqi relations with Turkey: “There will be a closer dialogue in the coming period both with the central Iraqi government and the local administration in the north on issues concerning the struggle against terrorism, energy and trade … Naturally, the level and frequency of this dialogue will be closely linked to the concrete rhetoric and actions to be displayed particularly in the fight against terrorism” (Hurriyet, May 5).

To what extent Turkey’s airstrikes and counter-terrorism efforts will have a lasting effect in the long term remains to be seen. In the short term, however, it is possible to observe a multifaceted approach to counter-terrorism combining diplomacy with limited but effective operations such as surgical airstrikes and targeted cross-border Special Forces operations. The major objective of these counter-terrorism operations is to demonstrate that PKK fighters can no longer be safe even outside of Turkish borders and, as significantly, to demonstrate to Iraqi authorities that the only way to avoid Turkish raids is to eliminate the terrorist bases in northern Iraq.