Over the course of the last week, the Turkish military and police forces have found themselves coming under increasingly deadly attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). As well as continuing assassinations, gun, and missile attacks on their positions in Turkish Kurdistan, security forces are taking severe losses from the same technology which caused havoc for Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan: IEDs. On the 6th of September, two Turkish Army armoured vehicles were attacked by a PKK roadside bomb in Daglica, a remove village close to the southern border with Turkey. While the details of the incident are not yet fully clear, what is confirmed is that at least 16 Turkish soldiers were left dead (the PKK claims a higher toll) and several vehicles were destroyed. In response, the Turkish Air Force conducted massive air raids comprised of least 50 aircraft targeting PKK camps in Northern Iraq.
This massive aerial response however does not seem to have impacted the PKK’s operational capabilities or indeed its will to fight, for it was followed by yet another bloody day for Turkey. This morning, 12 police were killed and 4 more injured when their bus stuck an IED in the country’s north-eastern province of Iğdır. Then, this afternoon, news emerged of another PKK attack, this time in the southern city of Cizre, where 3 more police were killed in an RPG attack.
With airstrikes not enough to dislodge the PKK, the Turkish military then made decision to strike back against the militants and send ground forces across the border into Iraq. Reports emerged in the wake of today’s attacks that the Turkish Army had sent a battalion of at least 1000 troops and vehicles into Iraq in order to “pursue” PKK attackers.
This amounts to a large-scale escalation of the conflict and represents a further undermining of the sovereignty of Iraq, already weakened by the advance of ISIS. This being said, it is not unprecedented, with a similar incursion being undertaken by Turkey in 2008. Drawing a parallel with this event, it seems unlikely that Turkey’s armed forces will be able to uproot the PKK from this region, and indeed this cross-border attack may serve to even further inflame the fighting.
The nature of the PKK and the terrain in which it fights gives it a massive advantage over time. Distributed across tens of thousands of sq. km of mountainous terrain, their fighters are able to rely on guerrilla tactics, picking when and where to fight Turkey’s military. As well, many PKK fighters are battle hardened through years fighting both Turkey as well as ISIS, while many within the Turkish military are young conscripts with understandably low morale.
Giving that these are not difficult observations, thought needs to be put into why Turkey has even chosen to fight the PKK at this stage?
To answer this question, one only needs to take a look at the political situation within Turkey. In the recent general elections incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party (AKP) failed to gain the necessary 50% it needed to form a majority government. Instead, the pro-Kurdish HDP performed surprisingly well, blocking the AKP’s chances, and forcing a number of rounds of (failed) coalition government negotiations.
Seeing the writing on the wall and imminent snap elections, Erdogan likely believes that through a resumption of hostilities with the PKK, he can gain politically. AKP supporters have ramped-up allegations that the HDP is a political wing of the PKK and state-run media has become increasingly hostile towards the party. By linking it with the PKK who are very unpopular in the majority of Turkey, Erdogan hopes that he can reduce the HDP vote in upcoming elections to below the 10% threshold needed to enter parliament, and thus lead the AKP to a majority victory.
Nonetheless, if polling is to be believed the HDP has not seen a significant fall in support within Turkey, meaning that Erdogan is playing a very dangerous game politically and with the lives of his soldiers. This conflict with the PKK is continuing to escalate and the body count climbs higher with each passing day. He can either decide to de-escalate with the PKK and return attempt to return to earlier peace talks or he can continue to up the ante with addition cross border attacks and a further crackdown in Kurdish areas of Turkey, in an attempt to intimidate potential HDP voters.
Both strategies are incredibly risky from a domestic politics and regional security standpoint. All eyes will be on Erdogan and the AKP for what stance they take in the run up to snap elections called for Novemeber 1. Unlike most conflicts however, this latest PKK-Turkey struggle will not revolve around the success and failure of a military campaign, but rather an electoral one.
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