Turkey has launched a series of airstrikes against Kurdish militant targets in northern Iraq and Syria after clashes that killed 12 Turkish soldiers. The operations come amid escalating conflict between Turkey and the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara blames for the deadly attacks on troops.
Series of Turkish military deaths prompts response
Over December 21st and 22nd, clashes between Turkish forces and the PKK left 12 soldiers dead and several more wounded. The incidents took place in Turkey’s Haftanin region bordering northern Iraq, where the PKK has bases. As Reuters reports, six soldiers died when PKK militants opened fire on a military base on December 22. A similar attack the previous day resulted in the deaths of three soldiers.
These latest clashes cap off months of rising tensions and Turkish military deaths at the hands of the PKK and its allies. As tallied by Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, around 2,200 PKK members have been “neutralized” so far in 2022 – but militants have still succeeded in carrying out deadly strikes on Turkish bases and convoys.
Erdogan vows response amid public pressure
With Turks voicing outrage over the bloodshed online, President Tayyip Erdogan and other political leaders were quick to vow retaliation. Erdogan himself promised to prevent terrorists from establishing a base across the country’s southern borders. Meanwhile, Turkish security officials held emergency meetings to plan their next steps.
Within hours, Turkey had mobilized warplanes to strike at PKK shelters, hideouts and ammunition stores in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq as well as PKK/YPG zones in northern Syria. The bombing campaign lasted two days, hitting at least 29 targets according to Turkey’s Defense Ministry and forcing militants to flee their positions.
Officials say more extensive, long-running military offensives against PKK elements in the region are inevitable. “There will be no compromise. The only road is the elimination of terror,” a presidential spokesman tweeted on December 22.
Iraq condemns strikes as international law breach
While Turkey defends its actions as self-defense against a proven terrorist organization, Iraq has loudly protested the unilateral strikes on its soil.
Iraq’s foreign ministry slammed them as violations of international law, Sumaria TV reported. Previous Turkish boming runs have drawn similar criticisms for endangering civilians. “These attacks represent a flagrant violation of international law and Iraqi sovereignty,” an Iraqi commander stationed near the border told local media after a strike last week.
|Turkish soldiers killed
|Northern Iraq, Northern Syria
|Northern Iraq, Northern Syria
While Iraq lacks the means to prevent further unilateral action by Turkish forces within its borders against militants, the central government wants Turkey’s military presence limited. Turkey has dozens of small military posts in northern Iraq intended to monitor PKK activity. But Bagdad argues these are illegal even if unconfirmed reports suggest local Kurdish authorities have agreed to some.
Continued conflict expected despite international criticism
With President Erdogan gearing up for tough 2023 elections, current and former Turkish government officials say he cannot politically afford to look weak on the Kurdish militant issue regardless of foreign complaints. They expect Turkey’s military to continue periodic strikes and ground raids targeting the PKK in Syria, Iraq and Turkey itself.
Still, Iraq will keep objecting, and so will other regional players. While Syria is in no position to resist Turkish intervention against Kurdish groups on its territory, Damascus generally aligns with the PKK and condemns Turkish aggression. Potential disputes with Iran and Russia, both allies of Syria with forces in proximity, present additional complications if Turkey escalates operations.
But after the deadly attacks on its troops in recent months, Turkey appears willing to accept these consequences rather than give the PKK space to regroup. The Turkish public seems to agree. According to political analyst Selim Sazak, hawkish messaging from Erdogan suggesting unrelenting force against the militants has only boosted his popularity at a crucial time. Barring an unexpected PKK ceasefire offer, more Turkish intervention in Iraq seems inevitable.
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