Maximum Pressure: Turkey’s Anti-PKK Counter-Terrorism Campaigns in Northern Iraq; Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 9

By: Can Kasapoglu

In late April, the Turkish military launched a large-scale cross-border counter-terrorism campaign into northern Iraq, targeting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its network. The push into northern Iraq followed two main axes: Operation Claw-Lightning and Operation Claw-Thunderbolt (Pençe-Şimşek and Pençe-Yıldırım). Thus far, the counter-terrorism campaign has focused on disrupting the PKK’s logistical infrastructure and operational capacity. Capitalizing on the Turkish Armed Forces’ robust combat capabilities and the nation’s burgeoning defense industry, Turkey is pursuing a maximum pressure military policy.

The Geopolitical Calculus of the Campaigns: Revisiting the Doctrinal Roots

In the 1990s, Turkey’s military policy was largely shaped by the geopolitical calculus of a ‘two-and-a-half war,’ which was married to the ‘active deterrence’ strategy. Within this framework, the ‘two wars’ referred to keeping high combat readiness for fighting two inter-state conflicts at one time, while the ‘half war’ was about running large-scale counter-terrorism operations against the PKK. By doing so, Turkey aimed to address national security threats at their source (Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs Center for Strategic Research, March–May 1996).

Throughout the 1990s, the Turkish military has, time and again, hammered the PKK’s safe havens in northern Iraq. The campaigns always saw large-scale force deployments and troop concentrations. In 1995, for example, Operation Steel (Çelik Harekatı) mobilized some 35,000 personnel, penetrating up to 60 kilometers into the Iraqi border (TRT Haber, October 21, 2011). In 1997, Operation Hammer (Çekiç Harekatı), which involved a series of cross-border offensives to overwhelm the PKK, paved the ground for Turkey’s contemporary permanent presence along the northern Iraqi frontier through the establishment of several forward-operating bases (CNNTürk, March 24; Habertürk, June 7, 2018).

The Maximum Pressure Counter-Terrorism Strategy

From a military-strategic standpoint, the Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt campaigns are centered on certain pillars as their principal concepts of operations (CONOPS). The first pillar remains the intensive use of airpower to soften PKK defensive positions. Some 50 aircraft took part in the launch of the offensive, resembling the opening scene of the 2018 Operation Olive Branch in northern Syria, which saw 72 aircraft operating at a time (CNNTurk, April 24; Habertürk, January 21, 2018).

Along with the sheer numbers of platforms employed, the armed forces’ operational enablers also commanded Turkish activity in the skies. Turkey’s airborne early warning and control aircraft, as well as tankers for aerial refueling, provided defense planners with better real-time intelligence and longer loitering times over the target areas. Further, munitions of choice have loomed large. In recent years, Turkey’s growing defense technological and industrial base completed the modernization of legacy ‘dumb bombs’ and turned them into Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) with GPS/INS guidance kits (TÜBİTAK SAGE, May 5). Thus, the Turkish Air Force’s bombardment now has a greater edge in comparison to the 1990s.

The second CONOPS pillar is air-assault offensives. The Turkish Army has a notable arsenal of rotary-wing platforms. The ongoing operations have witnessed the Turkish military’s CH-47F Chinook and S-70 Black Hawk helicopters delivering elite commando units to raid PKK militants day and night (Hurriyet, April 25).

The third CONOPS pillar, as previously observed in the Syrian expeditions, is the Turkish Army’s land-based fire-support units, which do the hard work with salvos (TRT Haber, April 26). In addition, Turkey’s military capacity now has a robust drone warfare edge. The campaign in northern Iraq benefitted from this critical capability to pinpoint strikes alongside intelligence and target acquisition missions (Turkish Ministry of Defense, May 6).

Finally, an important aspect of the Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt has revolved around subterranean warfare efforts due to the dense tunnel and cave networks of the PKK. Situated in northern Iraq’s mountainous terrain, the subterranean infrastructure supports the PKK’s critical logistics needs in that hot and harsh climate zone. Open-source evidence suggests that the Turkish troops cleared the PKK tunnel network one by one, with complex mapping and construction design (Turkish Ministry of Defense YouTube Channel, April 28).

Disrupting the PKK’s Arsenal at Turkey’s Doorstep

Another important dimension of Claw-Lightning & Claw-Thunderbolt has been to target the PKK’s weaponry close to Turkish territory. During a press conference, Turkey’s Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, stated that the campaign captured advanced arms from PKK hideouts, including advanced missiles. In addition, open-source intelligence released by the Turkish military also showcased significant PKK weaponry, including remote-control anti-aircraft guns, sniper rifles, heavy machine guns, and high-end communications equipment (Anadolu Agency, May 3; Turkish Ministry of Defense, May, 3).

In fact, the Turkish defense minister’s remarks pointed to a troublesome pattern for Turkey. The PKK has always benefited from crises and power vacuums in the Middle East. First, back in the early 1990s, following the Gulf War, the PKK network gained a broader marge de manoeuvre in the mountainous northern frontiers of Iraq as a result of the weakness of the regime of Saddam Hussein. At the time, the PKK managed to augment its arsenal with heavy arms left behind by the Iraqi military.

Since 2011, the Syrian Civil War has led to a similar vacuum. This time, the PKK obtained tactical gamer-changers, included anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). These weapons targeted the Turkish military’s advanced platforms, ranging from attack helicopters to fighting vehicles, numerous times. Thus, one of the key objectives of the current Turkish campaigns are to disrupt the PKK’s tactically game-changing arsenal deployed along the border (Turkish Gendarmerie Command, June 15, 2018; Daily Sabah, December 19, 2019).

What’s Next for the Turkish Anti-PKK Campaigns?

Turkey’s military policy in northern Iraq follows the footsteps of the lessons learned from Turkey’s 1990s counter-terrorism efforts. In other words, Turkey is striving to eliminate the PKK’s operational capacity at its source before the network can pour into Turkish territory. This time, however, is different than the 1990s because the Turkish Armed Forces can rely on indigenous solutions offered by Turkey’s national defense sector.

Given the current trajectory, Operation Claw-Lightning and Operation Claw-Thunderbolt remain promising campaigns for mitigating the PKK threat in the near term. However, when it comes to the PKK network’s growing hybrid warfare capabilities based on advanced weaponry, like ATGMs and MANPADS, Turkey will likely have to eventually address the issue in yet another frontier, Syria.