Turkey’s success in eliminating the PKK in the region will determine its future in Sinjar and Mosul.
On February 10, the Turkish Armed Forces began Operation Claw Eagle-2 against PKK positions in the mountainous Gara region in Northern Iraq, close to the Syrian border.
The operation, now concluded, was primarily aimed at rescuing 13 Turkish citizens who were held captive in a cave by the PKK. The PKK is responsible for more than 40,000 civilian and security personnel deaths in Turkey during an almost four-decade-long campaign of terror.
Rescuing captives and eliminating PKK
The terrorists killed the hostages in the cave, as Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar revealed, through close-range gunshots to the head during an intense clash between Turkish soldiers and the PKK. Three soldiers were also killed in clashes.
But the operation was also “extremely special and critical” for Turkey, for its strategic military position.
Minister Akar says it was successful as the area was largely cleared from the PKK. During the operation, fifty-one PKK terrorist were neutralised, including four senior members where military planes and unmanned aerial vehicles were used as support on the ground. Turkey sees the operations as an act of self-defence to secure its border from PKK expansion and attacks within Turkey.
This is not the first critical operation that Turkey has conducted in Iraq’s north. In the past, Turkey targeted PKK positions in Sinjar, Qandil, Karacak, Zap, Avasin-Basyan and Hakurk areas. The PKK often hide in caves in the mountains, using them as a launching pad for cross-border attacks in Turkey.
Gara is a strategic gate to Sinjar
According to Turkey’s Interior Ministry, 70 percent of PKK attacks targeting Turkey came from northern Iraq back in 2019, and Ankara sees the elimination of PKK in the Gara region pivotal in stopping cross-border attacks.
Akar says Gara has been one of Turkey’s focal points, and Ankara has been monitoring the region for the past five months.
Akar said during a briefing on Tuesday, Turkish forces called terrorists to surrender before entering the cave where hostages were held, but they responded with fire.
A mountainous region close to the Syrian border, the Gara region, is key to accessing Sinja—the region where the PKK has a strong influence and connects to other areas controlled by the group.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last month signalled an operation in Sinjar, where the PKK managed to establish its foothold in 2014, to cross northern Syria to fight against Daesh terror group. The PKK has since set up a new base there in addition to its main headquarters in the Qandil mountains in Iraq.
In response, Turkey expanded its operational area from the Qandil mountains to the Syrian border in recent years. Ankara has also been in close contact with Baghdad and Erbil administrations in Iraq, offering assistance to clean the region from the PKK.
Turkey eventually intends to pacify the corridor that the PKK has created between Iraq and Syria, according to a Turkish security official who spoke to BBC Turkish.
By eliminating the PKK in Gara, Ankara would prevent its easy access between Syrian and Iraqi camps, the official said. He also added that Turkish officials were tipped off that Gara was planned as a new base for the group.
Access to Mosul
The Gara region is also located between Turkey and Iraq’s Mosul, where Turkey plans to build a railway stretching to the Turkish border. The Turkish security official also said a PKK presence on the train line would create a security threat.
In Iraq, Iran-backed militias that are entrenched in the country’s politics and military, are uncomfortable with Turkey’s operation against the PKK.
When the Sinjar agreement was made on 9 October between Baghdad and Erbil, under the auspices of the UN, Turkey and some Western states including the US supported it. Both the PKK and some Iran-backed militias reacted strongly.
Iraqi Shiite militia faction Ashab al Kahf recently threatened Turkey: "All their economic and security interests in Iraq will be ashes, no less, if their combat forces continue to penetrate deeper into the dear lands of Nineveh [Province]."
Mehmet Alaca, a fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies tells TRT World that Turkey’s operation has threatened both PKK and Iran-backed militias in Hashd al Shaabi, (Popular Mobilisation) largely made up by Shia paramilitaries.
“After the Gara operation began, some Iran-backed groups like Hashd al Shaabi sent militias to Sinjar,” explaining that their tactical partnership emerged clearly during the Gara operation.
“One of the motivations of Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq is Sinjar because it is crucial for transit passage to Iran,” he says.