Experts doubtful about prospect of operation against PKK in Iraq

Experts doubtful about prospect of operation against PKK in Iraq

Turkish jets are seen at the military airbase in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır where they take off for aerial strikes on PKK camps in northern Iraq. (Photo: Reuters)

June 21, 2012, Thursday/ 17:46:00/ BETÜL AKKAYA DEMİRBAŞ

Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel has stated that the Turkish military is capable of completely destroying Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) hideouts in the Kandil mountains and raised the prospect of an air and ground operation in northern Iraq, but terrorism experts are not confident that the gains of such an operation would be worth the losses.

The general's remarks came a day before the killing of eight Turkish soldiers by PKK terrorists in Hakkari's Dağlıca area, but only found media coverage on Thursday. He said Turkey may launch a major incursion into northern Iraq to strike PKK camps in the Kandil Mountains, but cited three conditions: The government should give the military permission to launch the incursion; US support should be ensured for intelligence sharing; and people in Turkey should be prepared to tolerate a high death toll of soldiers participating in the incursion, the military chief was quoted as saying by the Radikal daily. The General Staff issued a statement on Thursday afternoon in which it did not completely rule out the possibility of a military incursion into northern Iraq. Instead, it said the Turkish military was saddened to see that "different meanings had been attributed to Özel's message."

The Turkish military pursued an offensive against the terrorist PKK in northern Iraq, shelling and bombing the terrorist group's bases in the Kandil Mountains, killing 26 PKK members after the terrorist attack on the Yeşiltaş Military Outpost in Dağlıca on Tuesday. Eight Turkish soldiers were killed in the attack and 19 were wounded.

A statement released by the General Staff late on Wednesday read that Turkish fighter jets had successfully hit bases belonging to the terrorist organization in northern Iraq. “Successfully completing their duties, our jets have returned to their military bases,” said the statement.

Following Özel’s remarks, there is now speculation that the Turkish military is considering an air and ground incursion into northern Iraq to destroy PKK bases in the Kandil Mountains. Several thousand PKK terrorists are believed to be based in mountainous hideouts in northern Iraq, from which they regularly launch attacks on state targets in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast of Turkey.

Terrorism experts are, however, not sure that an incursion into northern Iraq will be worth the efforts and losses as such an operation will probably not end Turkey’s terrorism problem. “It is unclear what we mean by an operation in the Kandil Mountains. No one knows how many kilometers the incursion will be into northern Iraq and how many months it will take. If the aim is to occupy the Kandil Mountains in order to solve the PKK terrorism there, the operation will take at least one year. In such a case, however, the loss of many lives [of Turkish soldiers] will be inevitable,” said strategist Nihat Ali Özcan of the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) in Ankara.

The Kandil Mountains, lying about 100 kilometers away from Turkey and close to the Iraq-Iran border, have long been a major command center for the PKK. Turkey has launched several military operations there, but failed to eradicate the PKK in the area. One of the biggest operations came in October 2011, after the terrorist organization killed 24 soldiers in the southeastern province of Hakkari. The Turkish military then launched an air and ground incursion into PKK camps in the Kandil Mountains. According to Özcan, a ground operation in the Kandil Mountains would be riskier than an air operation, but it would be “more fruitful.” “You cannot solve the PKK terrorism by sending bombs and shells down from jets or planes. You have to step on all corners in the mountains, which means a land incursion. Such a land operation would take at least one and probably more years for success in the anti-PKK fight,” the strategist stated.

It is not the first time the terrorist PKK attacked a military outpost in Dağlıca. A similar deadly attack in Dağlıca happened in late 2007, killing 12 soldiers. The Turkish military is at the center of harsh criticism because the slain soldiers -- mostly in their early 20s -- were sent to serve in the far-east corner of Turkey after only a couple of weeks of military training and forced to encamp at an unsafe outpost. The outpost, located among high and rocky mountains, was once built as part of Turkey’s efforts to curb smuggling in the region, but has remained neglected. The government vowed to reinforce outposts in the country’s eastern and southeastern regions after bloody terrorist attacks claimed the lives of dozens of soldiers in the past few years, but the reinforcements have not yet been completed. According to terrorism experts, young and inexperienced soldiers are left to their fate at the hands of terrorists in poorly equipped outposts.

In its statement on Thursday, the General Staff, however, rejected criticism of inadequate safety conditions at the Yeşiltaş Military Outpost in Dağlıca, saying the outpost was equipped with the required weapons and other military equipment to respond to the terrorist attack. The General Staff also said it was not right to liken the attack to the previous terrorist attack in Dağlıca. Also on Thursday, the Yüksekova Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into the attack to see whether the military was flawed or was negligent in the events that led to the killing of eight soldiers.

‘Not as easy as it sounds’

Mehmet Yegin, a terrorism and strategy expert with the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), underlined that an air or ground incursion into PKK camps in northern Iraq is not currently on the Turkish Armed Forces’ (TSK) agenda. Özel mentioned the possibility of such an incursion, but the General Staff has not made an announcement to verify its chief’s remarks, according to the expert.

Yegin said previous research by USAK had suggested that cross-border operations in the anti-PKK fight did not yield notable success. “Yet, there is a misperception in Turkey. People think the military can end the PKK terrorism easily by entering northern Iraq and bombing PKK bases there. However, it is not as easy as it sounds. Terrorists will not sit in their caves and wait for Turkish soldiers [to kill them]. A military operation [in the Kandil Mountains] may have a psychological impact on the PKK; it may frighten the terrorists, but it poses risks for the Turkish military,” he stated.

According to Yegin, the Turkish military had better launch targeted operations on PKK bases based on strong intelligence instead of sending soldiers to the Kandil Mountains to find and capture or kill terrorists. “But we need armed drones for success in a possible military incursion into northern Iraq,” the expert added.

For some time, Turkey has been trying to acquire armed drones -- the kind the US has used in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- from the US. But analysts say some members of Congress oppose the sale of armed Predator drones to Turkey due to its tense relations with Israel, a close US ally.

Asked if the US would lend its support to Turkey in the event of an air or ground operation on PKK bases in northern Iraq, Yegin said it is hard to predict at the moment. “The US has had an inconsistent stance on Turkish operations in northern Iraq. It was strongly opposed in 2003. But it said it would partially support such an operation in 2007. I think the US would support an air operation [into northern Iraq] today,” he added.

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