By Paul Iddon RUDAW – 11 June 2019 – Turkish commandos launch an operation in Hakurk, northern Kurdistan Region, May 28, 2019. Photo: Mustafa Aktas / Turkish Prime Ministry / handout
Turkey’s latest military offensive against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Kurdistan Region has been underway for two weeks now. Launched on May 27, Operation Claw is so far proving to be the most significant offensive Turkey has mounted against the PKK since at least last summer, but how strategically or tactically significant will it ultimately prove to be?
Turkey claims that it has “neutralized” – read as captured, wounded, or killed – 43 PKK fighters since Operation Claw commenced. The operation is taking place in the Hakurk region near the Kurdistan Region’s borders with both Turkey and Iran, indicating that Turkey wants to limit the PKK’s movements between Turkey and its Qandil Mountain stronghold.
The operation has seen Turkey hit suspected PKK positions with both air and artillery strikes. Turkey’s T129 ATAK attack helicopter, which saw its combat debut in Ankara’s invasion of the Syrian Kurdish Afrin canton in early 2018 (with the loss of one in unclear circumstances), have also reportedly participated in the operation.
This is noteworthy, as Turkey until recently relied heavily on its far older AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters to strike the PKK in the Kurdistan Region, terrorizing Kurdish villagers in the process.
The Turkish press has also claimed Turkey’s new Bora-1 tactical ballistic missile was used for the first time in combat, which, if verified, is also very significant.
On the ground, Turkish commandos have been dropped by helicopter onto Hakurk’s rugged terrain to attack the PKK in their caves and shelters. The Turkish Defense Ministry claims its armed forces have rendered 74 caves and other shelters hitherto used by the PKK unusable and destroyed 53 mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) among other weapons.
As with past incursions into the Kurdistan Region against the PKK, however, it is unclear whether Turkey can afflict lasting damage to the movement and its activities.
Operation Claw is the most significant campaign Turkey has mounted against the PKK in over a year. At the beginning in March 2018, Ankara mounted a substantial offensive operation against the group that also included the use of ground forces. It vowed to finally end the group’s presence in Qandil.
Turkey penetrated 20 kilometers deep into the region and captured at least 28 mostly vacant villages previously controlled by the PKK, some since the 1990s. It also established new outposts in the Kurdistan Region, including in Erbil province for the first time.
This was a significant advance, but it did not lead to any major uprooting of the PKK from its Qandil stronghold.
Before these developments the last major, albeit brief, Turkish incursion against the PKK was all the way back in February 2008. On that occasion, Turkey sent thousands of troops into the region backed by air and artillery strikes and attack helicopters, which engaged the PKK in close quarters combat.
On that occasion, Turkey faced more serious backlash from both Baghdad and Erbil and the operation only lasted a week.
The February 2008 incursion was the first since Turkey’s operations into the region in the 1990s. The 1995 Operation New Dawn and the 1997 Operation Hammer each saw approximately 30,000 troops advance into the region in an attempt to completely destroy the PKK presence in the Kurdistan Region.
Despite these enormous offensives, the PKK managed to endure and retain its presence in the region to this day.
At a strategic level, it is unlikely Operation Claw will be much different to these precedents. However, in tactical terms, Turkey’s incursions are clearly dealing the PKK a series of setbacks that it could take the group some time to recover from.
“The armed conflict between the Turkish state and the PKK has a very pronounced seasonal (cyclical) pattern – with the important exception of the summer 2015 to spring 2017 period characterized by intense urban warfare,” Güneş Murat Tezcür, chair of the Kurdish Political Studies Program at the University of Central Florida, told Rudaw English.
“Most of the clashes take place in the rugged region on either side of the Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish border,” he said.
“The ebb and flow in the intensity of these clashes are shaped by weather conditions (i.e., very limited activity in winter times with the exception of the February 2008 Zap Operation).”
Consequently, Operation Claw is the latest example of Turkey’s preference for increasing the pressure on the PKK in the summer season.
“The Turkish incursions into the south of this border targeting PKK camps are a regular pattern depending on relations with the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, being complacent in recent years, and Turkey’s threat perception being highly aggravated since the summer of 2015,” Tezcür said.
“This latest operation builds on a pattern established last year aiming to limit PKK attacks within Turkey by putting the insurgents on defense.”
That said, Tezcür also noted that Operation Claw is very limited compared to the operations of the 1990s.
“The change in the technology of warfare (drones being now essential to the Turkish strategies), the professionalization of the army (significant decline in the number of conscripts involved in battlefield operations), and (probably) higher public sensitivity to casualties (cross-border operations in the 1990s were bloodier) are important to note in this regard,” he said.
Tezcür concluded by pointing out that Operation Claw does not represent “a fundamental political change in the nature of the armed conflict.”
“It ups the ante in terms of military clashes but that is consistent with what we have been observing for the last four years,” he said.