Growing offensive: Turkey’s adventurism expands into northern Iraq

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has in the past few years sent Turkish soldiers into action in Syria, Libya, and Somalia, and it added to that list two weeks ago when it airlifted commando units into northern Iraq.

Ankara has for years regularly launched airstrikes into northern Iraq against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has led an insurgency within Turkey for three decades and is based in Iraq’s Qandil mountain range. It has also occasionally sent Turkish soldiers across the border for brief missions.

Yet this air and ground offensive may end up like those in neighbouring Syria, where Turkey has taken and held sizeable chunks of territory beyond its borders.

“Turkey is planning to create a buffer zone and split the Kurdish geography,” Bestoon Khalid, a Sulaymaniyah-based journalist and Kurdish affairs analyst, told Ahval in a podcast, adding that such a move would be unprecedented in the mainly Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

“The Turkish media is clearly saying that the objective of these offences is to stay,” he said. “It’s the first time that Turkey is creating control on the ground in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.”

Collaborating with local Syrian rebels, Turkish forces have in the last few years taken hold of three pieces of Syrian territory, including two mainly Kurdish areas, Afrin in 2018 and northeast Syria last October. In both cases, Turkey and its proxies reportedly committed war crimes and human rights violations, such as ethnic cleansing, roadside killings and forced disappearances, according to watchdog group Amnesty International.

Ankara’s incursion into northern Iraq has barely begun, yet it has already raised similar concerns. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned Turkey’s offensive and urged Ankara to stop after airstrikes hit Yazidi and Christian areas, killing five civilians according to local reports.

Last week, a Turkish air strike hit Kuna Masi village outside Sulaymaniyah, killing one man and injuring at least half a dozen civilians. In a video taken in the moments leading up to impact, two fathers are seen wading in a small pond, teaching their young children how to swim. Suddenly a massive blast is heard, the camera goes flying and people start screaming.

“This is a picnic area less than 20 miles (32 km) away from where I live,” said Khalid, acknowledging that later reports found there had been an armed militant driving through the area at the time.

“Turkey has very good technology to follow this person and hit this pick-up [truck] in a place where civilians would not be affected,” he said. “Turkey is trying to give this message to the Kurds that this is a threat to all of you.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu defended Turkey’s operations in northern Iraq last week, pointing to a growing PKK presence in Sulaymaniyah, a metropolitan area of some 1.5 million people. “They are now in the streets of Sulaymaniyah and they control hundreds of places,” he said.

Khalid disputed this view and saw it as part of Turkey’s broader effort to unsettle and terrorise Kurdish people. “If you say that Sulaymaniyah is under the control of a ‘terrorist organisation,’ you’re criminalising more than one and a half million people and giving yourself the right to bomb this city,” he said.

Güneş Murat Tezcür, head of the Kurdish political studies program at the University of Central Florida, is convinced that at least part of Ankara’s current aggressions can be traced back to the United States’ military partnership with the pro-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was forged in 2015 as part of the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Two years prior, amid the chaos of Syria’s civil war, the SDF had carved out an autonomous enclave known as Rojava along the Turkish border.

“When you have a Kurdish party in control of northern Syria this creates a huge nationalist anxiety in Turkey,” Tezcür told Ahval in a podcast, adding that one of Turkey’s NATO allies aligning with that Kurdish group only intensified Turkey’s concerns. “Whenever there’s this kind of connection between the United States and a Kurdish actor it creates more uncertainty and fear among Turkish political actors.”

Although U.S. President Donald Trump vowed last October to cut ties with the SDF and pulled back American troops, allowing Turkey to enter northeast Syria, U.S. forces still today operate alongside SDF troops, battling ISIS remnants and protecting several oil fields.

Erdoğan and Trump appear to have come to some sort of agreement, in which the presence of U.S. forces keeps Turkey from attempting to move further into mainly Kurdish areas of Syria, even as Washington turns a blind eye to Turkey’s broader aggressions against the Kurds.

“The United States can prevent Turkey from having a full incursion into Kurdish areas in Syria, but it doesn’t mean that the United States is putting lots of pressure on Turkey to change its Kurdish policy,” said Tezcür.

So Turkey is largely free to continue its aggressions against Kurdish actors within Turkey, where it has dismissed and jailed more than 100 elected officials from the main pro-Kurdish party, to hold onto formerly Kurdish areas in Syria and imperil civilians in areas it does not control, such as the drone strike last week that killed three civilian women near Kobani.

In northern Iraq, Turkey’s military has in the past four years established more than a dozen observation posts. Turkish officials have said they plan to set up more military bases in the area to prevent cleared regions from being retaken by the PKK.

Khalid saw this as a clear sign that Turkey plans to stay, just as it has in Syria’s Kurdish areas. He also worried that Turkey might repeat its policy in Libya and import thousands of radical Syrian rebels to secure a planned buffer zone. 

“There is this fear among the people that control of those areas may be handed over to Syrian jihadist militants, with Turkey having control points to protect them, which is a big threat to the security and safety of the whole region,” he said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.