On April 18, Turkey launched a military offensive aimed at purported Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) hideouts in northern Iraq, saying the group was planning a cross-border attack.
During an April 20 parliamentary meeting of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the country’s military had to act against terrorist organizations infiltrating Turkey. He claimed only terrorists opposed such operations.
“I wish success for our heroic soldiers involved in this operation, which we are carrying out in close cooperation with the central Iraqi government and the regional administration in northern Iraq,” Erdogan said.
That is false.
In fact, on April 19, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry denounced the Turkish operation in a statement on its website, saying it refused to let Iraq be a place for “conflicts and settling scores for other external parties.”
“Iraq regards this action as a violation of its sovereignty and the sanctity of the country, and an act that violates international charters and laws that govern the relations between countries,” the ministry said.
The same day, the Iraqi government summoned the Turkish ambassador in Baghdad, Ali Reza Guney, handing him what it described as “firmly-worded note of protest” to “put an end to acts of provocation and unacceptable violations.”
That does not sound like “close cooperation.”
On April 21, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry summoned Iraq’s charge d'affaires to convey “discomfort” over the Iraqi statements, Reuters reported.
Turkey has repeatedly conducted airstrikes in northern Iraq, mainly targeting areas in the Kurdish region where PKK fighters are concentrated. In 2020, Turkey launched two large-scale operations, code-named Claw-Tiger and Claw-Eagle.
About half the 25 million Kurds in the Mideast live in southeast Turkey. The PKK first emerged as a leftist separatist group in the late 1970s and launched a string of violent attacks. Since 2000, repeated efforts to settle differences with the government have failed.
Turkey, the European Union and the United States officially consider the PKK a terrorist group.
The Turkey-PKK conflict has lasted more than 40 years and killed nearly 40,000 people. A pro-Kurdish political party, the HDP, is also active in Turkey in opposition to Erdogan.
Following the attempted military coup in Turkey in 2016, Erdogan arrested thousands of people, increased airstrikes in southern Turkey and conducted military operations in Iraq and Syria.
Erdogan intensified actions against PKK militants in the wake of the failed coup. Meantime, his AKP and allies have moved to shut down the HDP, an effort the United States has denounced.
Turkey says that its latest military operation is in line with the United Nations principle of self-defense. In a news conference held on April 18, AKP spokesman Omer Celik said the operation is a preemptive move to “fend-off a large-scale attack by the PKK.”
“We have to protect our people, based on the right of self-protection enshrined in Article 51 of the UN Charter, "Celik said.
Celik cited Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which states:
“Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”
However, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry rejected Turkey’s claim, saying Article 51 does not permit the breach of an independent country’s sovereignty.
On April 20, the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also denounced the Turkish operation, stating that the sovereignty of Kurdish and Iraqi territory must be respected. The Peshmerga is the military wing of the KRG and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Without directly criticizing Turkey, on April 19, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said activity in Iraq must respect the country’s sovereignty and regional security.
The KRG blamed the PKK for the Turkish operation. On April 19, KRG spokesman Jutiar Adel said in a press conference that the PKK’s presence is inflicting harm on the Kurdistan region of Iraq. While Adel did not say that the KRG is directly cooperating with Turkey, he called on Kurdish opponents of both Turkey and Iran to find peaceful means to settle issues.
Turkey has been accused of targeting civilians and destabilizing northern Iraq. In February, a Turkish airstrike hit a Kurdish refugee camp in Iraq, killing eight people and injuring 17, including both civilians and PKK fighters. Most of the camp’s 12,000 refugees are Kurds who fled Turkey because of fighting.
Turkish airstrikes in February targeted Iraq’s Makhmour province and Sinjar province – the latter a predominantly Yazidi area.
Turkey has also conducted airstrikes in Syria, targeting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers an affiliate of the PKK. The YPG, however, is the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S. ally that spearheaded the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terror group in Syria.
Turkish military operations pose a risk to displaced Yazidis who want to go back to their homes. In 2014, 400,000 Yazidis were killed, kidnapped or forced to flee by IS. The U.N. called it a genocide.
IS was defeated in Iraq in 2017 and in Syria in 2018. Today, 350,000 Yazidi survivors live in scattered refugee camps in northern Iraq.