The adoption of a proactive operational strategy has allowed the Turkish military to conduct effective cross-border operations against the terror group amid northern Iraq's rugged terrain.

After achieving major headway in its urban warfare campaign combating the PKK terror group in Iraq, Turkish security forces have successfully managed to crack down on the group’s structures, cells, and networks.

And by doing so, Turkey may have reformated its strategy for counter-terrorism in mountainous terrain since it began operations in 2019. 

Throughout history, mountains have given gangs, bandits, and terrorists a safe-haven. But the Turkish military is targeting terrorists where they feel most secure - inside their caves. Recent Turkish military operations in northern Iraq is only the latest example. 

To understand the Turkish strategy, one has to grasp the geography of the area.

The Zagros mountain range, with the highest peaks reaching over 3,000 metres, is difficult to access due to extremely rugged terrain, with hills going up from the Iraq-Iran border towards the Turkish-Iraq border, making a clear borderline impossible. In the middle of these hills in the mountain range in northern Iraq are small rivers and villages, not to mention dangerous cliffs.

This natural geography allowed the PKK to establish a range of terror camps in northern Iraq over the years, including Qandil, Hakurk, Zap, Avashin-Basyan, Metina, Haftanin, Sinat, Gara, and Sinjar. 

Early on, the PKK took supplies from Kurdish villagers by force and extracted “taxes” from them. These, among other acts, resulted in a mass migration out of the villages - and many in northern Iraq remain uninhabited until today.

In the past, Turkey conducted several military operations, some together with the Kurdish Peshmerga. Despite initial success, none of them resulted in the elimination of the PKK in the region. The inability to monitor the group’s activities by air and to destroy their caves was an important reason for its short-lived success.

Today, the situation is different.

The Turkish defence industry has produced armed drones renowned for their efficiency in Syria, Libya, and Azerbaijan. These drones have allowed Turkey to monitor the PKK’s activities and strike when necessary, while the Turkish military is primed with ammunition and bombs designed to destroy caves.

While the Turkish military has been presented with the required means to accomplish their goal, the game-changer has been the employment of a proactive operational model, where it conducted several cross-border operations in northern Iraq and fought for control over hills and mountains.

Starting with Operation Claw, Turkish soldiers were airdropped and entered PKK camps and caves to destroy them. After accomplishing that, the soldiers did not leave but established checkpoints overlooking the hills. These networks of checkpoints were directly linked to military bases in Turkey. Supported by drones, soldiers could monitor any possible PKK movements, and each checkpoint prevented the group from establishing new camps and caves, or infiltrating into Turkey.

At the moment, the Turkish military has routed the PKK from Hakurk, Haftanin, Metina, Avashin-Basyan, and Sinat camps, in effect clearing them from the Turkish border. The latest operation focused on the southern part of the Metina camp, where the Turkish army established its network of checkpoints supported by drones and its air force.

For a while, the PKK was neither capable of conducting any serious attack against the checkpoints nor penetrating the Turkish border via Iraq. As a result, the PKK is increasingly resorting to infiltrating Turkey via tunnels in Syria.

That said, the latest operation has a significant difference when compared with previous ones.

The Metina camp is not directly linked to the Turkish border; the southern part of the camp and the northern part is divided by a belt of villages under the control of the Kurdish Peshmerga. The network of checkpoints now being established in the southern part of Metina have to pass through areas controlled by the Kurdish Peshmarga or use their airspace for supplies.

If a logistical line can be established and proves to work effectively, this latest approach can be used for further military operations to root out the remaining PKK camps in northern Iraq, all of which are located further south and were used to train and organise PKK cadres, rather than to infiltrate Turkey.

It is then likely to expect Turkey to launch a new military operation targeting the Gara, Qandil, and Sinjar camps. The latest rescue mission that resulted following the execution of Turkish, Iraqi prisoners by the PKK highlighted Turkey’s capability to conduct such operations further south.

When these operations were conducted, the Turkish military benefited from cooperation with the Peshmerga to enable logistics and work as a buffer against the PKK in northern Iraq.

At the moment, the Peshmerga have proved to be cooperative by blocking the PKK’s movements. Growing Turkish-Kurdish ties might enable greater cooperation necessary for the model to establish a stronger network of checkpoints.

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