Last month, on the 23rd of April 2021, Turkey initiated a land and air offensive against Kurdish military forces in this region. The assault comprises two operations, codenamed Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt, which targeted three regions: Zap, Metina, and Avashin. In the attacks, Turkey used fighter jets, helicopters, surveillance drones, bombings, and artillery weapons. According to the administrative chief of Kani Masi, a town near Metina, the Turkish forces crossed the Turkish-Iraqi border and attacked the Iraqi Kurdish territory when the frontier between the two states was not surveyed by border guards. The attacked areas are the camp basis of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is portrayed in the international community as a terrorist group.
Background and previous events
The conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party, which represents the semi-autonomous region in Iraq, has been on and off for decades now and it rebegan in July 2015, when the ceasefire that had been in effect for two and a half years collapsed. According to the International Crisis Groups, since 2015 more than 5700 people have died in the conflict. The victims include soldiers both from the Turkish and from the Kurdish side, but also innocent civilians. Since 2019 Turkey has engaged in a series of cross-border campaigns in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, which led to the creation of many Turkish bases in this area.
Previous military operations conducted by Turkey took place in 2020, from June to September, when Operations Claw-Eagle and Claw-Tiger were launched. The attacks left more than 300 people dead and also resulted in material losses. The Turkish forces cooperated with the Iranian ones, directing simultaneous attacks on the Iraqi Kurdistan territory. Those actions have drawn international attention, with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom blaming Turkey for threatening the Yazidi population, but the Turkish government rejected the claims. Also, the Arab League criticized Turkey for violating the sovereignty of the Iraqi territory.
The two offensives were followed by Operation Claw-Eagle 2, which took place in February 2021. In this event, almost 50 PKK fighters lost their lives, while Turkey lost 13 soldiers.
The Turkish perspective and actions
The attack came after the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, expressed his will to eliminate terrorism in the neighboring areas, not mentioning directly, but referring to the PKK forces and their Syrian allies: “There is no place for the separatist terrorist organization and terrorism in the future of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.”
Moreover, on the 30th of April, the Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said that Turkey would establish a new base in Metina, in the region of the Qandil mountains, where the main command center of the Kurdistan Workers Party is placed. This would have as a purpose the monitoring of PKK actions. Turkey also has bases in areas surrounding Metina, namely in the region of Qandil mountains, at the border with Iran, and in Sinjar, at the border with Syria.
The Turkish officials are using the delayed agreement, signed under the observation of the United Nations, between the government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), as an excuse for their interventions. The agreement was concluded in October 2020, but it has not yet entered into force. Its main goal is a successful withdrawal of the PKK forces from Sinjar.
Specialists consider that the recent actions orchestrated by Turkey are part of a larger strategy whose purpose is to break up the “Kurdish belt”, that stretches along the borders of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. They aim at cutting off the communication and access channels between the main bases of PKK, that connect the Qandil region to the Syrian border, where another conflict between the Kurds and Turkey is ongoing. In this sense, in the past years, the Turkish forces have increased their number of bases and, also, that of soldiers.
The Kurdish perspectives and actions
The Kurdistan Workers Party issued a statement on the 26th of April 2021, announcing that the Turkish military forces airdropped troops in different locations from the three areas. The response of the PKK armed forces, known as People’s Defense Forces, consisted of “sabotage tactics” and counterattacks, which resulted in several losses for the Turkish army.
Furthermore, they have accused Turkey of using chemical weapons in the days following the offensive that took place on the 23rd of April. The Kurdistan Communities Union spokesman, Zagros Hiwa, declared: “They used chemical weapons in the Mamresho hills overlooking Basyan river, and Marvanos hills overlooking the Avashin river […] They have used the chemicals against the tunnels there”. According to Kurdish officials, more than 75 villages in the Amedi district remained without electricity as a result of the Turkish bombings.
Iraq’s position in the conflict
The armed conflict between the two enemies takes place mostly on Iraq’s territory. Iraq has complained about the actions conducted by Turkey, but it is considered that Iraq is not likely to be able to face the forces of its neighbors. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry declared on the 3rd of May that they have addressed a protest note to the Turkish government, in which they accused Turkey of “violations of Iraqi sovereignty”, as a consequence of the visit paid by the Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar to one of their military bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. The visit took place the day after the Turkish Interior Minister announced that Turkey plans to build a new base in Metina. Turkey responded to these accusations by stating that they have done nothing to violate the Iraqi territorial integrity. Also, they said that they intend to continue their actions until rebel groups would be eliminated from the area. In this respect, the Turkish Defense Minister said: “Our struggle against terrorism will continue until every last terrorist is neutralized”.
The Iranian implications
Iranian forces are also present in this conflict, through the Shiite militia proxies. They are standing against the expansion of the Turkish influence in Iraq and they act especially when Turkey interferes in areas that go beyond the margins of the Kurdistan Regional Government territory. In order to demonstrate this position, the Iranian-backed militias killed a Turkish soldier that was out of the areas controlled by the KRG.
Furthermore, the opposition that Iran has adopted against Turkey does not mean that it is an ally of the Kurdish forces, as the relations between them and Iran remain tense. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had several clashed with Kurdish fighters and in one of them, an Iranian officer was killed by the Kurdish groups on the 4th of May 2021. This is not an isolated case, as the clashes between the two forces have been going on for decades in the region close to the Iraqi border.
The Kurdish groups here want autonomy, but the Islamic Republic of Iran is not likely to ever approve of this.
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About the author:
Delia-Maria MOTAN is Intern research at MEPEI, and her research interest lies in international relations and political science in the Middle East. Currently, she is studying at the Faculty of the Political Science / University of Bucharest.