The success of the cross-border offensive depends on the military’s airborne operations and the role of the Kurdish Peshmerga.
In the decades of Türkiye’s fight against the PKK terror group, the Turkish Armed Forces have always started counter-terrorism operations in the spring, as northern Iraq’s harsh winters made military operations difficult. In the past, the army would withdraw in the winter, a period which PKK militants would use to return and relocate. However, Ankara has employed a new strategy in recent years: since 2016, Turkish presence in the area has been continuous.
On the heels of several successful operations in northern Iraq, Türkiye launched Operation Claw-Lock with an airborne operation, as predicted by this author. After clearing the border region, airborne operations in areas further south will become a priority.
The Turkish army conducted a series of precise air strikes using fighter jets and drones and targetting PKK positions with attack helicopters. After the initial bombardment, the Turkish Special Forces were flown into the Zap Mountain and Avasin Mountain region.
While the mountainous terrain of northern Iraq and the decades-long entrenchment of the PKK in the tunnels and caves of the region make military operations extremely difficult, the Turkish strategy of drones and checkpoints has garnered immense success in the past. This time, however, the military aspects of the airborne operation and the role of the Kurdish Peshmerga will determine the success of the operation.
PKK militants have been driven to the edge, where they have nowhere to flee except to areas under the firm control of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). PKK militants are trying to sneak into Kurdish villages and cities to survive. With the start of the operation, and even days before, Kurdish Peshmerga forces were deployed to the area to block routes and prevent the PKK from going underground in Kurdish towns and villages. The offensive began days after the Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani’s Ankara visit last week.
As in previous operations in which the Kurds took control of PKK-dominated areas, it is likely that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces will build new bases in PKK camp regions to drive out the terror group and block its logistics lines. As the Turkish soldiers advance further south, they will need to increase their cooperation with KRG authorities to secure a functioning supply line.
Meanwhile, Iraqi federal officials have been somewhat critical of the operation in their official discourse, but in reality, the Central Government also supports these operations. As in the recent past, the Iraqi army is supporting the operation by increasing pressure on the PKK in the Sinjar region, which has become a new stronghold for the PKK that links Iraq to Syria.
An important element in Operation Claw-Lock is the simultaneous targeting of PKK elements in Iraq as well as Syria — where the group goes by the name YPG. This is partly due to a de-facto regional alliance of Arabs, Turks, and Kurds, that has formed against the PKK. Turkish artillery pounded YPG positions firmly the whole night while drones targeted other YPG positions.
In light of these developments, Operation Claw-Lock — coming on the heels of similarly named offensives Claw-Eagle and Claw-Tiger — is the continuation of an ongoing process of military actions and alliance formation to drive the PKK into a corner. With each year since the start of these operations in 2020, the PKK is losing more ground and is coming under greater pressure. In light of this reality, the PKK’s dependence on Syria and Europe for its survival has increased.
In Syria, the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK, controls vast territories of Arab-majority lands with the support of the United States and the military protection of Russia. The self-declared autonomous administration of north and east Syria has even published a document claiming it is the constitution of its alleged autonomous administration. With continued losses in Iraq, the PKK may increasingly shift its dominance into Syria and further exploit the country as a safe haven.
In Europe, the PKK has built up a strong network that is tolerated by governments. These networks are not only involved in money laundering for the PKK and drug trafficking but also try to lobby Western politicians and public figures to support the terror group’s propaganda.
For example, with the start of Operation Claw-Lock, PKK supporters in over two dozen German cities — Nuremberg, Berlin, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Kassel, Jena, Giessen, Kiel, Dresden, Bonn, Leipzig, Saarbrucken, Göttingen, Bremen, Freiburg, Duisburg, Dortmund, Dusseldorf, Halle, Hanover, Mannheim, Hamburg, Magdeburg, Bielefeld, Cologne, and Munich — organised demonstrations in support of the PKK.
These networks also exploit women’s rights for their agenda: the pro-PKK Kurdish Womenbureau for Peace in Germany released a statement supporting the group that allegedly stands for equality and women's rights against the Turkish counter-terrorism operation, describing it as a “force against capitalism.”
Many similar examples can be found not only in Germany but in other European states, including France and Belgium. For the PKK, Europe has become the place where it feels the least pressure.
The presence of the “PKK diaspora” in Europe enables the group to maintain its presence in an environment absent of a military threat or direct Turkish pressure. Therefore, its presence in Europe is essential in maintaining manpower, propaganda and financing. If the presence in Iraq and Syria is the “hard power” of the PKK, its network in Europe is the soft power.”
In this manner, Operation Claw-Lock is a new stage of a successful military strategy that is combined with necessary regional alliance formations. However, to end the threat posed by the PKK, Ankara has to clear Syria of the PKK/YPG and convince its European partners to increase their pressure against the criminal activities of the PKK in Europe.
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