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Turkey looks for regional help in its battle against Kurdish rebels in Iraq

By Dorian Jones - RFI
Turkey  AP  Bram Janssen
MAR 30, 2024 LISTEN
© AP / Bram Janssen

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to end the threat posed by Kurdish rebel group the PKK, which has been fighting Turkey for decades. As Turkey prepares to launch a major military operation against the organisation in Iraq, it is looking to other governments in the region for support.

Turkish forces have been carrying out military operations in northern Iraq for the last two years against bases of the PKK, which has been fighting for Kurdish minority rights in Turkey for decades.

But Erdogan is now vowing to permanently end the threat posed by the PKK and its affiliates in neighbouring Syria.

"We have preparations that will give new nightmares to those who think that they will bring Turkey to its knees with a 'Terroristan' along our southern borders," the Turkish president bellowed earlier this month.

According to Mesut Casin, a presidential adviser and professor of international politics at Istanbul's Yeditepe University, the military operation is expected to take aim at PKK targets along the more than 300km border that Turkey shares with Iraq.

"By securing the Iraq border, Turkey is expected to create a 40km new security corridor, similar to the one in Syria," he said.

But Casin also stressed that, to end the PKK threat, Ankara is looking beyond military means to a new model of military and diplomatic cooperation with the leaders of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Regional cooperation

Ankara got a boost in its war against the PKK this month when Baghdad banned the Kurdish group.

Erdogan is also developing close ties with the leadership of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan regional government in Erbil.

Such cooperation is seen as vital to Ankara's goal of eradicating the PKK threat.

"Turkey will focus on the capacity of Iraqi security forces, together with the Kurdish regional government's Peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdish soldiers]," explained Murat Aslan, an analyst with Turkish think tank the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research.

"Turkey wants a full encirclement of all PKK members in Iraq and then to destroy them, neutralise them," Aslan said.

New leverage

In April, Erdogan is scheduled to visit both Erbil and Baghdad, where the PKK is expected to top the agenda.

Enhanced bilateral trade and increasing international transit trade through Iraq to Turkey is seen as giving Erdogan new leverage with Baghdad.

"The carrot is the new so-called 'Development Road', which will connect Basra port to to the Turkish border, to Habur or to a new border gate," said Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat who served in Iraq.

"Perhaps it will have a railroad, then a parallel highway, which will bring billions of US dollars to Baghdad's coffers," continued Selcen, now a regional analyst for Turkey's Medyascope news portal. 

"For that project to be realistic, there should be stability and security in Iraq. So in a way, Ankara wishes to repackage the combat against PKK within that project."

Iran question

However, analysts predict Iran's cooperation will also be needed, given that the PKK headquarters are located in the mountainous Qandil region.

"Why is Iran important? Because the Qandil mountains are not only in Iraq. They are divided between Iran and Iraq," explained analyst Aslan.

"Whenever an operation is planned and implemented in the region, [the PKK] go to Iran, enjoy a safe haven, and come back," he said.

"So this campaign should be complemented by Iranian efforts, but it's not guaranteed. We will see what happens."

With the rivalry between Turkey and Iran increasing across the region, Tehran may be reluctant to accommodate Ankara's demands. That could add to ongoing bilateral tensions, giving the PKK room to escape the tightening Turkish grip.

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