In his analysis for the Crisis Group, an independent organisation working to prevent wars, Berkay Mandıracı emphasises the emerging partnership between Turkey and the Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party, saying “The spread of fighting to new battlegrounds has drawn in an increasingly complex web of actors. In northern Iraq, Turkey has partnered with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – the largest and most powerful political party in Iraqi Kurdistan and its Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – to obtain information about PKK movements as well as to secure areas it has cleared of PKK militants. The PKK, meanwhile, is forging deeper alliances with Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups (also known as Hashd al-Shaabi) at odds with Ankara and is exercising increasing decision-making authority within the ranks of its affiliates in Syria, primarily the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey sees as an extension of the PKK. The expansion of the battlefield, use of new tactics and involvement of new actors make it harder to identify avenues for tamping down the conflict. Still, steps to contain escalation between the YPG on one side, and Turkish forces and Turkey-backed rebels in northern Syria on the other could help reduce the risk of more violence.’’
Turkey will almost certainly continue to rely on air power to battle the PKK in Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
In continuatuon, Mandıracı explains that Turkey is increasingly relying on air power, saying “The deployment of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones since 2017 has proven a game-changer for Ankara, providing both armed overwatch for Turkish forces and enabling the targeted killing of higher-ranking PKK figures in hard-to-reach terrain in Turkey’s southeast and northern Iraq. The PKK has long found refuge in the steep cliffs and jagged peaks of the Zagros mountain range stretching from the Iraq-Iran border to the Turkey-Iraq frontier. PKK training camps dot the region, including in the Qandil mountains of Iraq, where the group’s headquarters are located. Before it fielded the Bayraktars, Turkey had been using unarmed surveillance drones purchased from the U.S. and Israel in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“Besides lacking strike capability, these drones were costly and had a more limited range than the Bayraktars, as well as less powerful cameras and transmission systems. Turkish officials also reportedly feared that because those drones were more easily detectable by countries with radar instruments in range – like Israel, the U.S. and potentially even Iran – their activities could more easily be monitored.”
KDP’s military cooperation with Ankara underpinned by growing economic interdependence.
“In northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party has emerged as Turkey’s main local partner in its fight with the PKK. Turkish relations with the party hit a low point in 2017 when Ankara opposed the KDP’s failed referendum on independence for Iraq’s Kurdistan region. But their joint opposition to the PKK’s presence in the area and growing trade ties have helped patch things up. The KDP has allowed Ankara to set up military bases and expand its anti-PKK intelligence and other operations in the territory the KRG administers. Critically, it also offers Turkey its own battlefield intelligence as the KDP and its armed forces know the terrain and have a good grasp of the PKK’s tactics. At times, KDP-aligned security forces also step in to establish control of areas in northern and northeastern KRG-controlled Iraq from which Turkish operations have driven PKK militants.’’
Ankara worries that Sinjar has become a land bridge connecting the PKK in northern Iraq with the YPG and other affiliates in northeastern Syria.
“Ankara worries that Sinjar has become a land bridge connecting the PKK in northern Iraq with the YPG and other affiliates in northeastern Syria. Top Turkish officials have repeatedly vowed that they will not allow Sinjar to become a “second Qandil” –ie, another PKK bastion. To curb its reach in Sinjar, the Turkish military has ordered numerous airstrikes since 2020, targeting both PKK and YBS [Sinjar Resistance Units]fighters. The PKK has taken advantage of the natural protection offered by the mountains, building tunnels and secure locations, and thus reducing the impact of Turkish strikes.”