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What is Turkey's strategy in Iraq, Syria?

Cathrin Schaer | Sinem Özdemir
July 27, 2022

Turkey's longstanding campaigns against Kurdish militants in Iraq and in Syria are under the spotlight after alleged Turkish strikes killed nine tourists in northern Iraq. It's led to a new flaring of regional tensions.

Protesters burn the portrait of the Turkish President during a demonstration condemning the artillery bombardment of a Kurdish hill village, .
As funerals were held for those killed at the vacation resort, hundreds of Iraqis protested Turkey's presence in their countryImage: Hussein Faleh/AFP/Getty Images

Unfortunately it was only a matter of time before something like this happened, Iraq-based freelance journalist Simona Foltyn wrote after at least four artillery shells hit holidaymakers last week at a popular tourist spot in northern Iraq — an area where Turkey's armed forces regularly target Kurdish militants taking refuge in the mountains.

The attacks killed nine civilians, including two children, and at least 23 others were wounded.

The area in Zakho in the semiautonomous Kurdish region that was hit is near the Turkish border and is a popular destination for Iraqis, many from the southern part of the country, seeking to escape the intense heat in the summer months.

The Iraqi government has blamed the Turkish military for the strikes. A senior politician in parliament called the Turks an "occupying force" and hundreds of Iraqis protested outside the Turkish embassy in Baghdad.

The Turkish government denies it had anything to do with the strike.

Turkey's longstanding campaign against the PKK

But in fact, this is not the first time that the Turkish military has been blamed for civilian deaths in Iraq.

The Turkish army has been conducting cross-border operations in the northern Kurdish-run region of Iraq for around three decades. Non-governmental organizations say that since 2015, Turkish strikes have killed an estimated 129 civilians in northern Iraq and wounded at least another 180.

Turkey's cross-border operations began in the 1990s as its army pursued members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, into Iraq.

The PKK are a militant group that advocates for Kurdish sovereignty and launched an armed struggle in Turkey in 1984, that included kidnappings and bombings. The PKK is classified as a terrorist organization by the US and the EU.

On Monday this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the PKK was to blame for the attack on the vacation spot in Zakho.

Holidaymakers crowd a resort to cool off on a hot day on the outskirts of Dahuk, north of the Kurdistan region.
Northern Iraq draws tourists to its waterfalls, mountains and cool temperaturesImage: Karim Kadim/AP/picture alliance

Changing tactics in northern Iraq

The Kurdish people, estimated to number around 30 million altogether, are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without their own country. Many Kurds are native to the region where four countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey — meet. The Kurdish people have often been persecuted or oppressed by the majority population in those countries.

As Turkey fought the PKK at home, members of the rebel group fled into the mountainous border area of Iraq. The PKK also launched attacks into Turkey from there. This is why for years, Turkey has conducted cross-border raids. Turkey claims self defense and denies targeting civilians in Iraq, instead accusing the PKK of using them as human shields.

Over time, Turkey's tactics in Iraq have changed, going from aerial bombing of suspected PKK camps to the establishment of a semi-permanent military presence along Iraqi borders, including five main bases and over 50 checkpoints.

The location of the conflict has also moved, going from less inhabited, mountainous terrain into more populated areas. This has led to de-facto Turkish control of Iraqi border areas, with the implicit permission of the Iraqi Kurds who govern this area.

There are now estimated to be between 4,000 and 10,000 Turkish soldiers in this part of Iraq.

Turkey plans new offensive in Syria

In May, Erdogan also announced a decision to launch a new military offensive against Kurdish fighters in neighboring Syria. 

Turkey sees Iraq and Syria as the same theater of operations. However the situation is very different in north-eastern Syria.

There too, local Kurds are in control of large swathes of territory in the north of the country but this time, it is PKK-linked groups mostly running the area. Along with other Arab fighters, they form what are known as the Syrian Defense Forces, or SDF. This group is backed by the US, which considers the SDF an important ally in the fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State.

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters stand guard at Al Naeem Square, in Raqqa, Syria.
An estimated 900 US soldiers operate alongside the SDF in SyriaImage: Baderkhan Ahmad/AP/picture alliance

Turkey has only had a military presence in the Syrian-Turkish border area since 2016. 

However, as Salim Cevik, a researcher at the German institute for Security and International affairs, wrote in a May 2022 briefing, "all Turkish operations in Syria are contingent on, and limited by, approval from the Russians and Americans."

Russia remains the dominant, foreign military power in Syria and Iran also plays a part supporting the authoritarian Syrian government.

"It remains possible that Turkey will conduct a new offensive in northern Syria, but much will depend on President Putin giving his green light," Francesco Siccardi, senior program manager and Turkey expert at Carnegie Europe, told DW.

Both Siccardi and Cevik believe that two things Turkey has done recently — closed its airspace to Russian planes and threatened to veto Swe­dish and Finnish NATO membership — actually relate to Erdogan's plans in Syria. It's all about pressuring the US and Russia to give permission for the new military operation, Cevik suggested.

What's in it for Turkey?

"The first aim is to keep the PKK away from Turkey," Cevik said. The Turks want to create a "buffer zone" along both the Iraqi and Syrian borders, defeat the PKK or at the least, disrupt their logistics.

A military helicopter takes off during an operation against PKK (listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU) terrorists in Argus-2 base area in Hakkari, Turkey .
Analysts say the Turkish buffer zone at the border is a success, with most conflicts with the PKK happening in Iraq or SyriaImage: Ozkan Bilgin/AA/picture alliance

But there are also domestic political considerations.

Intensifying this conflict could improve Erdogan's chances of reelection during an economic crisis, Carnegie analyst Siccardi said.

"A Turkish operation in northern Syria, if it happens, will be exploited to get the largest possible support for President Erdogan in the lead up to Turkey's next general election [in June 2023]," he explained. "By intervening in Syria, the Turkish President will not only rally the country around the flag, but also produce tangible proof that he is trying to fix the refugee crisis affecting his country."

Erdogan could capitalize on growing right wing, anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey. He has said that the planned operation is part of an effort to create a safe zone for some of the millions of Syrian refugees who have fled the civil war and entered Turkey.

These conflicts in Iraq and Syria also create a militarized and anti-Kurdish atmosphere that allow Erdogan to clamp down further on one of his biggest political opponents, the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party, or HDP, Cevik added.

Groups gathered in Berlin to protest against Turkish occupation and American imperialism on May 14, 2022.
By the end of 2021, almost a fifth of the pro-Kurdish HDP's members were jailed in TurkeyImage: Michael Kuenne/PRESSCOV/Zuma Press/picture alliance

The Turkish election is due to be held next summer so "one would expect that next year's [military] operations will be more sen­sational and crucial, due to domestic electoral calculations," Cevik concluded.

Aydin Selcen, an ex-diplomat formerly posted in northern Iraq who now works as a political commentator, isn't so sure. The US, Russia and Iran all seem to be opposed to larger Turkish missions in Syria, he told DW. "So it is difficult to say that an operation is imminent," Selcen said. "Even the continuation of the operation in Iraq has become doubtful after this latest incident [in Zakho]."

'More scrutiny of what Turkey is doing in Iraq and Syria'

Even though nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack on the Iraqi vacation resort, the tragedy means there's more scrutiny of what Turkey is doing in both Iraq and Syria, Siccardi said. "This complicates Turkey's position." 

The bodies of nine people who were killed in an artillery attack blamed on Turkey in the northern Iraqi Kurdish region arrive at Baghdad Airport,
The Iraqi government has filed a complaint with the UN Security Council over the killing of civilians at the vacation resortImage: Media Office of the Prime Minister of Iraq/AP/picture alliance

"The public anger in Iraq has put pressure on Iraqi politicians to respond," Hamzed Hadad, a visiting fellow with the Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW. "I don't think the [Turkish] campaign will stop, but I think sustained pressure will force them to be more careful about who they're targeting."

"It's natural for both Damascus and Baghdad to react when such operations are carried out in their territories, at least on paper," Selcen added.

But it's unclear what impact the Zakho bombing will have on the ground as Iraq and Turkey have firm diplomatic and economic ties, he said. "So it doesn't necessarily indicate any change in Turkish policies in those countries."

Edited by: Sonia Phalnikar


Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.