How Turkey is building a buffer zone in Iraqi Kurdistan

Turkish soldiers at an observation post near Iraq border on 15 August, 2017. [Getty]
4 min read
Iraq
18 June, 2021
Analysis: Turkey is deforesting swathes of land along the border in Iraqi Kurdistan to pave the way for roads, enabling further military expansion in the region.

In late May, Iraqi Kurds expressed their frustration and outrage when satellite images revealed that Turkey was deforesting Iraqi Kurdistan's border with Turkey.

Now, the Turkish Army is building roads where trees used to be so dense "that the sky was practically blocked out," stated one report.

It is all part of Ankara's perennial war against its arch-enemy, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a group categorised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the EU which has used Iraqi Kurdistan and its mountainous terrain as a base for its bid for creating an independent Kurdistan since 1980s.

According to an MP in Iraqi Kurdistan's parliament, Turkey is building new roads "in order to clear out paths and link military posts built there."

"The deforestation project is just one aspect of Turkey's strategy of gradually enlarging its military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan"

Turkey's military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan

In late April, the Turkish military launched its latest air and ground operations against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, named operations Claw-Lightning and Thunderbolt respectively. They are the successors of last year's operations Claw-Eagle and Tiger. 

The deforestation project is just one aspect of Turkey's strategy of gradually enlarging its military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan by establishing new military bases and posts in strategically important areas to constrain the PKK's movements and operational capacity.

It appears this strategy is having some success. Most engagements between the Turkish military and the PKK now occur in Iraqi Kurdistan, with a marked decline in the number of clashes in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast since these latest cross-border operations began. This could well be a result of increased Turkish pressure against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Society
Live Story

As Kurdish analyst Ceng Sagnic pointed out, "the conflict has recently reached topographically difficult regions" in the autonomous Kurdish region "that have been under undisputed PKK control for over 25 years." 

Abdulla Hawez, another Kurdish analyst, noted that Turkish positions along the border suggest that the Turkish Army "is gradually creating what appears to be a belt throughout its border with Iraq."

Such a 'belt' along most, if not eventually all, of that border would undoubtedly constrain PKK movements between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey and possibly Syria as well, where a PKK affiliate controls large swathes of that country's northeast.

Turkey will likely maintain this strategy of annual air and ground operations against the group while incrementally expanding its ground military presence, putting increased pressure on the group's Qandil Mountain stronghold. 

"With each new operation, Turkey is expanding its network of bases and positions"

Turkey's long-term strategy

Turkey has established at least 40 military bases and outposts throughout the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region as part of this effort. With each new operation, Turkey is expanding its network of bases and positions. 

Shortly after the launch of Claw-Lightning and Thunderbolt, Turkey's interior minister announced that the military would establish a new base in Iraqi Kurdistan's Metina region. The very next day, the Turkish minister of defence made an unannounced visit to Turkish troops based in Iraqi Kurdistan, briefly raising eyebrows in Baghdad. 

Turkish soldiers during an operation against PKK near the border with Iraqi Kurdistan on 26 January, 2021. [Getty]
Turkish soldiers during an operation against PKK near the border with Iraqi Kurdistan on 26 January, 2021. [Getty]

 

 

Turkey's long-term strategy, implemented in phases through operations like Claw-Lightning and Thunderbolt, likely consists of three main objectives. 

First, preventing the PKK's cross-border movement to Turkey as well as Syria.

Second, locking and interdicting PKK movement between its Qandil Mountain stronghold and the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar, which sits on the border with Syria.

Third, once these two objectives are achieved, assaulting or subjecting Qandil to a lengthy siege in a bid to destroy the group's Iraqi Kurdish base once and for all.

However, that last objective would likely prove tremendously difficult, even for NATO's second-largest army. 

"Many of these drones are armed, meaning they can readily attack PKK targets, even in difficult terrain"

Turkey's technological advantage

Since 2018, Turkey has demonstrated that its increasingly sophisticated military technology gives it a huge advantage over its non-state adversary. That was the year that it first demonstrated its capability to assassinate senior PKK members with air and drone strikes. 

Using air power to assassinate individual targets in such a way was a capability that only Israel hitherto possessed in the region. 

Turkey's drones can also loiter much longer over the battlefield than helicopters or fighter jets and keep an eye on PKK movements. Many of these drones are armed, meaning they can readily attack PKK targets, even in difficult terrain. Several senior PKK members have been killed in Turkish drone strikes over the last three years.

Analysis
Live Story

In the latest operation, Turkish drone strikes targeted senior PKK members in the Makhmour camp in Iraq, 180km south of the Turkish border. These strikes, carried out with the help of Turkish intelligence, once again demonstrated Ankara's reach and its ability to take out individual enemy targets with precision.

While these recent operations strongly indicate that Turkey has afflicted some significant tactical defeats against the PKK, routing the group from Qandil and conclusively ending its presence in Iraq is most likely still a way off. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon