Turkey is warning it will launch a decisive strike on the longtime Kurdish separatist group PKK at the group’s base in northern Iraq. The top Turkish diplomat said Ankara would draw on cooperation from the U.S. and others do so.
U.S. officials have yet to confirm their participation in or cooperation with such an assault.
The offensive that Ankara is planning will coincide with elections later this month.
The PKK has waged a decades-long cross-border insurgency against the Turkish state for Kurdish autonomy from its remote base in Qandil in northern Iraq.
“There will be a four-way cooperation [in the fight against the PKK] between Turkey, the U.S., Baghdad and Irbil [the Iraqi regional Kurdish capital], Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters this week.
For the last few months, Turkish forces have been advancing into Iraq and are less than 20 kilometers (12½ miles) from the PKK’s Qandil headquarters.
“Qandil is not a distant target for us anymore right now,” Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said Monday. “Timing is what is important for us right now. Qandil will be made a safe place for Turkey. No one should doubt that.”
Capturing the PKK base has been a decades-long objective of the Turkish military. However, PKK headquarters have always been viewed as all but impregnable.
“We are talking about a huge area, a mountainous area, very rugged. Militarily, it’s a big, big challenge,” said retired Brigadier General Haldun Solmazturk, who now heads the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute.
Solmazturk is a veteran of Turkey’s long war against the PKK, taking part in several cross-border operations into Iraq.
“No sane general would entertain such an intervention unless Turkey pulls out of everywhere else — in Syria, in Iraq — and take control of the military situation within Turkey. Only then, perhaps, can Turkey consider taking on such intervention,” added Solmazturk.
Turkish forces have in recent months carried out extensive military operations against the PKK inside Turkey, which analysts say has significantly reduced the capabilities of the rebel group. The Turkish army has also invested in heavy-lift helicopters, allowing the deployment of large numbers of forces by air.
However, Qandil’s mountainous terrain is not the only obstacle Ankara must face.
“The main challenge is topography, not only geographical, but the political geography,” said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who served in Baghdad and Irbil.
“You have to work not only with Baghdad but Irbil, and indirectly with Tehran, as well. To the east of Qandil is Iran. So, Tehran’s cooperation is needed to seal the border. So politically, Iran must see some advantage to cooperate,” Selcen added.
Analysts say securing Tehran’s support for any military operation against the PKK will not be easy.
“They [Tehran and Ankara] do not have a common commitment to wage war against the Kurds,” said Iran expert Jamshid Assadi of France’s Burgundy Business School. “They don’t have the same visions on the Kurds. Iran is the land of the Kurds.”
Further complicating Ankara’s efforts to secure Tehran’s cooperation: The PKK has an Iranian-affiliated group, the PJAK.
“Tehran from time to time cooperates with PJAK,” Selcen said. “Up until now, Iran’s approach has been pragmatic to the point of opportunist. They have some understanding with the PKK. Iran is one of the main powers that wield influence among the Kurds.
“Any backing by Tehran of an Ankara operation against the PKK would also most likely undermine Iranian efforts to court the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, a group that analysts say has close links with the PKK.
The militia is working closely with U.S. forces against Islamic State.
“The presence of U.S. armed forces in Syria is seen as a threat by both Damascus and Tehran,” Selcen said, “so peeling the YPG away from the Americans toward Damascus is a priority.”
Analysts say Tehran’s efforts to pry the YPG away from U.S. forces may have gotten a boost from Ankara and Washington’s announcement Monday of a road map for the militia to withdraw from the strategically critical Syrian town of Manbij.
The Turkish government is heralding the agreement as a significant victory. Ankara is lobbying its NATO partner to end its support of the YPG because of its links to the PKK.
Even without Tehran’s support, Ankara could still be tempted to carry out a strike against the Qandil PKK base.
“Don’t be surprised if the flag goes up in Qandil before the June 24 elections, and the region that has been used as a hotbed of terrorism for years is cleared, and the temple of international terror is destroyed,” columnist Ibrahim Karagol wrote in the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party are facing rejuvenated opposition in presidential and general elections. With the polls dominated by growing economic concerns, analysts suggest Erdogan would welcome a change in the political agenda.