Overnight on April 24, Turkish warplanes struck positions in Iraq’s Sinjar region and in Northeastern Syria targeting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and People’s Protection Units (YPG). Since the breakdown of the Turkish peace process with the PKK in July of 2015, Turkey has routinely targeted PKK outposts within the Kurdistan region of Iraq. What separates the April 24 strike is that it indirectly killed 5 Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Peshmerga soldiers who were stationed at one of their nearby bases. The Turkish General Staff confirmed the strikes, saying that 39 PKK positions had been destroyed in the series of strikes. The second unique aspect of the April 24 strikes is that they represent the first time Turkey has directly bombed PKK-linked YPG positions in northern Syria.
Turkey has stated that the operations were “conducted within the scope of international law,” and “with the aim of destroying hotbeds of terrorism which target the unity, integrity, and safety of our country and nation.” Turkey informed the US, Russia, and the KRG of the impending strikes before they occurred. Nevertheless, KRG President Masoud Barzani said that the attack came as “a surprise.” The death of 5 Peshmerga soldiers garnered quick responses from the major players in both the Kurdistan Region and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. The KRG, while calling the strikes “painful,” also underscored that the strikes were “a result of [the] PKK’s presence in and around Sinjar.” The statement continued, “[The] PKK has been problematic for the people of the Kurdistan Region and, despite broad calls to withdraw, refuses to leave Sinjar.” Turkey was quick to offer to transfer the injured Peshmerga soldiers to Turkey for medical treatment following its strikes. The Turkish government was also quick to assert that the strikes were “absolutely not an operation against the Peshmerga.” For now, the Kurdistan Regional Government appears to be of the opinion that its overall security is threatened by the continued presence of the PKK in Sinjar.
The Sinjar strikes occurred as part of a six-day-long bombardment against the positions of PKK and PKK affiliated groups in Iraq. In previous days, Turkey had targeted positions in the Amedi district in the Qandil Mountains, the notorious PKK outpost along the northern Iraq-Iran border. The day after the targeting of Sinjar, Turkey continued the campaign with strikes against the PKK along the Zap river.
The KRG representative to the US Bayan Rahman underscored the KRG’s position that the PKK is an unwelcome actor in Iraqi Kurdistan; the “PKK must leave” she tweeted in the aftermath of the attack. Likewise, Sinjar’s Mayor claimed, “we have warned UNAMI [UN Assistance Mission for Iraq], the US embassy [in Baghdad] and the countries’ embassies more than 10 times that forces illegally present in the region not lead to further bombardment of the region.” However, other actors in the Kurdistan Region were less understanding of the strikes, denouncing the bombings and calling on the international community and anti-ISIL coalition to respond to the attacks.
In Syria, the strikes complicate the already fraught triangle between the US, the YPG, and Turkey. US military personnel were dispatched to YPG positions in Syria struck by the Turkish attack to assess the situation, and according to reports from Kurdish journalists, the PKK claims that the international coalition provided “limited intel” on the oncoming Turkish strikes, allowing them to largely clear the area prior to the bombing campaign. According to Turkish sources, the YPG operatives in northern Syria were quick to alert PKK positions in Iraq that strikes might be coming following the first round of strikes against YPG targets in northern Syria. The advanced warning allowed PKK forces to reposition themselves closer to Peshmerga outposts in an attempt to complicate the strikes. Peshmerga forces have been stationed in Sinjar in order to reinforce the KRG’s policy that the PKK is unwelcome in the Kurdistan Region. The YPG was quick to return fire against military posts in the Turkish province of Hatay, launching a mortar attack across the Turkish-Syrian border on April 26. Later in the day, the Turkish military and the YPG exchanged fire along the Syrian-Turkish border near Darbasiyah.
The US Department of Defense [DoD] responded to the strikes by making it clear that it was monitoring developments as they unfolded and that there were “meetings in progress to de-escalate tensions.” Later, a DoD spokesperson stated that the US was calling on “all of Iraq’s neighbors” to respect Iraq’s sovereignty. According to the State Department, the US is “deeply concerned” about the airstrikes being conducted “without proper coordination either with the United States or the broader global coalition to defeat ISIS,” and that it had expressed these concerns to the Turkish government. The US government lamented the “unfortunate” loss of partner forces in the airstrikes, alluding to both losses incurred by the Peshmerga in Iraq and YPG in Syria.
Turkey’s strikes in Sinjar and Northern Syria appear to be the first step in Turkey’s plans to expand Operation Euphrates Shield into Iraq. They also are a direct response to the growing amount of cross border movement between PKK and YPG forces in Iraq and Syria. At the very least, the move backs up Turkey’s vow not to let Sinjar become a “new Qandil” for the PKK. The strikes also come at a critical moment in the anti-ISIL campaign as the US-led coalition looks to launch its long anticipated offensive against ISIL in Raqqa. Turkey has repeatedly called for the YPG to be excluded from the offensive, offering its own assistance for the offensive. The YPG has also engaged in an effort to keep the US-led coalition from supporting Operation Euphrates Shield. “Because the YPG created pressure, the coalition did not want to support us,” the Turkish Foreign Minister has remarked.
Turkish officials have often stated that they hope for renewed strength in the Turkish-American relationship under the Trump administration, which had become strained under the Obama presidency. In a recent interview, President Erdogan lamented that the previous US administration had not kept its promises to Turkey on the fight against terrorism. However, Ankara sees new opportunities with the Trump administration, saying that Washington’s new approach to Syria is “encouraging.” President Trump and President Erdogan are scheduled to meet in mid-May ahead of that month’s NATO summit. It will be the first time the two leaders have met since President Trump’s inauguration. The status of the anti-ISIL coalition’s operations are a given topic for the meeting, but Turkey’s anti-PKK strikes may also find their way onto the agenda if Turkey’s strikes continue to cause diplomatic waves.
For Ankara, the fight against the PKK and all of its associated groups is a vital national security interest. Likewise, it has made it clear that it “won’t tolerate” the consolidation of PKK positions in Sinjar, and it is unlikely to waver from this position. In the coming days, this may bring increased tension into Turkey’s relations not only with the US, which has long backed the PKK-affiliated YPG in Syria, but also with Russia, who has also expressed “serious concern” over the strikes. In Iraq, Turkey has a vital interest in preserving its painstakingly built relationship with the KRG. While the KRG and Turkey appear to be on the same page about the threat posed by the PKK for now, the sharp response from other groups in the Kurdistan Region may increase pressure on the KRG to take a harder line on future Turkish operations in northern Iraq.