Turkey’s push into Iraq risks deeper conflict
SARARO, Iraq : Looming over the deserted town of Sararo in northern Iraq, three Turkish military outposts break the skyline, part of an invasion that forced residents to flee after days of shelling last year.
The outposts are just a few of dozens of new military bases Turkey has established on Iraqi soil in the past two years as it steps up its decades-long offensive against Kurdish militants holed up in the remote and rugged region.
“When Turkey first came to the area, they pitched small portable tents, but in the spring they set up outposts with bricks and cement,” Sararo Mayor Abdulrahman Hussein Rashid said during a visit to the village in December , where shell casings and shrapnel still litter the ground.
“They have drones and cameras working 24/7. They know everything that’s going on,” he told Reuters, as drones buzzed overhead in the mountainous terrain 5km from the border.
Turkey’s advances across the increasingly depopulated border of Iraqi Kurdistan attract little global attention compared to its incursions into Syria or the fight against Islamic State, but the escalation risks further destabilizing a region where foreign powers have intervened with impunity, say analysts.
Turkey could become further entangled if its new Iraqi bases come under sustained attack, while its growing presence could also encourage Iran to expand military action in Iraq against groups it accuses of fueling unrest at home, Kurdish officials say .
Former secretary-general for Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces, Jabar Manda, said Turkey had 29 outposts in Iraq until 2019, but the number has increased as Ankara tries to prevent the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) from launching attacks on its own territory.
“Year after year, the outposts are increasing following the escalation of fighting between Turkish forces and the PKK,” he said, estimating the current number at 87, mostly in a strip of border area about 150 km (95 miles) long and 30 km deep.
“In those outposts there are tanks and armored vehicles,” says Manda, who is now a security analyst in Sulaimaniya. “Helicopters supply the outposts daily.”
A Kurdish official, who declined to be named, also said Turkey now has about 80 outposts in Iraq. Another Kurdish official said that at least 50 have been built in the past two years and that Turkey’s presence is becoming more permanent.
Asked to comment on its bases in Iraq, Turkey’s defense ministry said its operations there were in line with Article 51 of the UN Charter, which gives member states the right to self-defense in the event of attack.
“Our fight against terrorism in northern Iraq is carried out in coordination and close cooperation with the Iraqi authorities,” the ministry said in a statement, which did not address questions about the figures cited by Kurdish officials.
Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq, long outside the direct control of the Baghdad government, dates back to the 1990s when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein pushed Turkish forces 5 km into the country to fight the PKK.
Since then, Turkey has built up a significant presence, including one base at Bashiqa 80 km inside Iraq, where it says Turkish troops were part of an international mission to train and equip Iraqi forces to fight Islamic State.
Turkey said it was working to avoid civilian casualties through its coordination with Iraqi authorities.
A report published in August by a coalition of NGOs, End Cross-Border Bombing, said at least 98 civilians had been killed between 2015 and 2021. The International Crisis Group, which gave a similar civilian death toll, said 1,180 PKK militants were killed between 2015. and 2023.
According to an official from Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the conflict has also emptied at least 800 villages since 2015, when a ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK broke down, driving thousands of people from their homes.
Beyond the humanitarian impact, Turkey’s invasion could widen the conflict by giving regional rival Iran carte blanche to step up intelligence operations inside Iraq and take its own military action, Kurdish officials say.
Tehran has already fired missiles at bases of Kurdish groups it accuses of involvement in protests against its restrictions on women, displacing hundreds of Iranian Kurds and killing some.
Iran did not respond to requests for comment.
Pro-Iranian militias in Iraq also have a pretext to respond to Turkey’s presence, analysts say, raising the prospect of escalation between Turkish troops and groups other than the PKK.
Hamdi Malik, a specialist on Iraqi Shiite militias at the Washington Institute, said pro-Iranian groups such as Liwa Ahrar al-Iraq (Free People of Iraq Brigade) and Ahrar Sinjar (Free People of Sinjar) last year rebranded themselves as the resistance to the Turkish presence.
According to a Washington Institute report, attacks on Turkish military facilities in Iraq increased from an average of 1.5 strikes per month at the beginning of 2022 to seven in April.
If the groups, which are very hostile to Washington, step up operations that would also undermine the influence of the United States and its 2,000 troops in Iraq, said Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington.
“Turkey underestimates the strength of opposition and the fact that these facilities will become targets in the future and more so as hostilities increase,” said Sajad Jiyad, Baghdad-based analyst for The Century Foundation, a US think tank.
‘THEY GOT US BOTH WRONG’
Northern Iraq’s fragmented politics means that neither the federal government in Baghdad nor the KRG regional authority is strong enough to challenge Turkey’s presence – or to achieve Ankara’s goal of containing the PKK itself.
The Baghdad government has complained about Ankara’s incursions but has little authority in the mainly Kurdish north, while the region’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) lacks the firepower to challenge the PKK, despite calling it considered a powerful and populist competitor.
The KDP has historically cooperated with Turkey, but has limited influence over a neighboring country that has far greater military and economic influence.
“We ask all foreign military groups – including the PKK – not to drag the Kurdistan region into any kind of conflicts or tensions,” KRG spokesman Jotiar Adil said.
“The PKK is the main reason that pushed Turkey to enter our territories in the Kurdistan region. Therefore, we think that the PKK should leave,” he said. “We are not a side in this long-running conflict and we have no plans to be on any side.”
Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani told Reuters the conflict between Turkey and the PKK was worrying but less urgent than the threat from the Islamic State.
Hariam Mahmoud, a leading figure in the Kurdistan Liberation Movement, a civil opposition group in Iraq influenced by the ideas of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, said no matter how much Turkey squeezes them, they will continue to resist.
“In our opinion, this is an occupation and fighting resistance is a legitimate right,” said Mahmoud, who lives in the Garmiyan district south of Sulaimaniya.
Civilians, meanwhile, continue to pay the price.
In 2021, Ramzan Ali (72) was irrigating his field in Hirure, a few km from Sararo, when he heard a tremendous explosion. The next thing he remembers is being on the ground covered in blood.
He said a Turkish shell had crashed into his property – a regular occurrence when Turkish troops respond to PKK attacks with artillery.
“I saw my life flash before my eyes,” Ali said in the town of Zakho, where he still suffers from shrapnel wounds. “I am angry with both the PKK and Turkey. They have wronged us both.”
(Reporting by Amina Ismail in Sararo, Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Kawa Omar in Dohuk; Editing by Dominic Evans and David Clarke)