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Turkish military operation in Kurdish region of Iraq

07 June 2019 Ege Seckin

Turkey launched a cross-border ground operation on 29 May targeting Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (PKK) militants' bases in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. An IHS Markit source with good access to the Turkish General Staff has reported that the Turkish deployment comprises six battalions, about 3,000 ground troops.

In addition to airstrikes and field artillery support, the operation has seen the first ever use of Turkey's domestically developed Bora surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, which were fired at PKK targets. By 3 June, the Turkish military had established two separate pockets reaching 10 and 50 kilometers into Iraq respectively. A similar cross-border operation was carried out in the area in mid-2018.

Significance

According to our source, the operation is intended to establish a temporary military presence in the area in order to constrain the PKK's freedom of movement, both across the Turkish-Iraqi border and in Sinjar, Nineveh province, Iraq. The number of troops committed is highly unlikely to be sufficient to penetrate as far as, and clear, the PKK's headquarters in the Qandil Mountains, located some 25 kilometers further south of the current front line.

The onset of winter brings harsh weather conditions to this mountainous terrain, meaning that Turkish forces will likely need to evacuate the area by October. IHS Markit assesses that the timing of the operation is also likely intended to divert public attention from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's softening stance towards jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, which he has used to increase his party's appeal to Kurdish voters in Istanbul, ahead of the critical 23 June re-run of the city's municipal election.

The operation is unlikely to increase risks to oil or other commercial operations in the Kurdish region, as the PKK bases are located mostly in mountainous border areas, far from towns and cities and, crucially, oil assets. The operation raises the risk of the PKK resuming its terrorism campaign inside Turkey, with targets including strategic assets such as oil and gas pipelines. This remains unlikely, given the PKK desire not to jeopardize continued US support for its Syrian Kurdish affiliates. An indicator of increased terrorism risks would be the Erdoğan government reneging on the any pledges made to Öcalan, such as an improvement of his prison conditions, following the 23 June vote.

Posted 07 June 2019 by Ege Seckin, Principal Analyst, Country Risk, IHS Markit

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