Assessing Risks of Turkish Raids in Northern Iraq

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Samantha Rollinger
Middle East Times
May 13, 2008

The latest round of Turkish air raids against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq, continuing from this past weekend into Monday, underscore the fact that Turkish incursions have become part of the war’s indelible landscape.

The most recent intervention comes on the heels of two waves of strikes that Turkey’s air force conducted against PKK targets in northern Iraq on April 25-26 and May 1-2. Moreover, Turkish air and ground forces conducted a major incursion in February, during which the Turkish military claimed that it killed around 240 PKK fighters over the course of nine days.

Military interventions generally risk destabilization, and some analysts have voiced concerns that these Turkish incursions could produce accidental skirmishes between Turkish and either American or Iraqi Kurdish forces, and that civilian casualties resulting from Turkey’s strikes could be destabilizing.

However, the nightmare scenarios envisioned by some observers have not emerged from past Turkish actions. This is an opportune time to assess why some of the gravest predictions have not come to pass – and consider whether future Turkish actions could be more destabilizing.

An Accidental Conflict?

We spoke with several analysts who felt that a miscalculated conflict between Turkish and American forces was simply not a realistic concern due to coordination between the two countries’ militaries.

Svante Cornell, research director for the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, told us that Turkey’s ground offensive in February never could have occurred without coordination with the United States.

“An accidental conflict between U.S. forces and Turkish forces is not even worth talking about,” he said. “The Turkish military has a direct relationship with the U.S. military. The U.S. was informed, and was brought to a point of approving of it.”

Cornell emphasized that while the U.S. was likely displeased with Turkey’s incursion, it understood that the intervention was inevitable due to PKK attacks against Turkey.

Likewise, several independent sources told us that the U.S. will authorize Turkey’s use of airspace before its air force carries out strikes inside Iraq.

Avoiding Civilian Casualties

A second factor in avoiding accidental skirmishes has been the PKK’s location, generally in the mountains of northern Iraq rather than in villages. Retired U.S. Army major General Paul E. Vallely told us that U.S. and Iraqi Kurdish forces will avoid areas where Turkey’s army is staging operations. “They either clear out,” Vallely said, “or else weren’t in the PKK areas to any degree except for reconnaissance or intel guys.”

And a third factor is the U.S.’s provision of real-time intelligence to Turkey’s military obtained through unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and satellite imaging. Washington and Ankara entered into an agreement on Nov. 5, 2007, providing that both countries would share intelligence in the fight against the PKK; the U.S.’s intelligence-sharing helps Turkey’s military have greater confidence in the targets it strikes, and also helps ensure that Turkish forces do not hit the wrong targets.

The PKK’s location has also helped to keep civilian casualties from spiraling out of control during Turkish interventions. A senior American military intelligence officer told us that the PKK does not follow Mao Zedong’s famous adage that “the guerilla is the fish and the people are the sea.”

Moreover, he noted that the PKK does not have a great deal of support in northern Iraq’s large urban areas – thus inhibiting the group’s ability to mix into the civilian population to the same extent as, for example, al-Qaida in Iraq.

Nonetheless, the PKK’s strategies could change. Frank Hyland, who has been involved in counterterrorism work for more than 25 years and frequently writes about the PKK for the Jamestown Foundation, told us that the recent Turkish incursions have been quite costly for the PKK. The terror group had grown accustomed to resting and recuperating in the winter, then hitting the Turks with a spring offensive. Turkey’s strikes have prevented the PKK from doing so this year, and Hyland expects the PKK will try to adapt.

“They may indeed go into villages and try to hide among the people,” he said.

Does this mean that future Turkish incursions could result in more civilian casualties? Hyland believes that this isn’t necessarily the case, noting that Turkey has been fairly effective at using intelligence obtained via UAVs to pick off groups of PKK fighters as they try to cross the border. Bombs are trickier to intercept; for example, on May 9 a roadside bomb planted by the PKK killed three and injured three in a minibus in Batman.

But Hyland told us that he thinks the Turks have options because “they will watch for unit deployments on the Iraqi side of the border, and conduct searches on the Turkish side of the border. Because of this, they won’t have to go into urban areas.”

The U.S. Role

For these reasons, most analysts we interviewed thought the U.S. did not need to take further steps to prevent miscalculated fighting or civilian casualties during future Turkish incursions.

But should the U.S. take steps to address Turkish concerns about the PKK, and thus make future interventions less necessary?

Turkey has been clamoring for the U.S. to do more about the PKK’s bases in northern Iraq, but it is unlikely that the U.S. will do more militarily.

“The Turks believe we should launch the same kind of comprehensive counterinsurgency operations against the PKK that we’ve done against al-Qaida in Iraq and the Mahdi Army,” a U.S. intelligence source told us.

“It’s a fair argument that we shouldn’t allow a country that we’ve ‘liberated’ to export terrorism. The main issue is resources – the U.S. military isn’t big enough, and the PKK isn’t an active enough combatant against U.S. or coalition forces.”

There is also the issue of PKK fundraising. The PKK is known to derive substantial revenue from the drug trade, and has also been linked to human trafficking.

“Notwithstanding the supposed unity of the EU,” Hyland told us, “there are varying degrees of clamping down on PKK fundraising activities.”

Cornell added, “In Europe, there’s a lot of hesitance to see the PKK as a terrorist organization.” The PKK is fairly open about its attempts to propagandize and raise money in some European countries. While the Europeans are not doing enough to counteract this problem, it is not clear that they have the political will to address it or that the U.S. has enough leverage to make them do so.


Because of the lack of military options and political will to clamp down on PKK fundraising, it appears that Turkish incursions into northern Iraq will continue in the foreseeable future. Fortunately, these incursions – at least for the time being – do not pose the grave risks that some analysts fear.