Turkey to stretch from Syria to Iraq to contain "terror threat": analyst



Turkey is aiming to contain the terrorist threat at its southern borders with an integrated military strategy, signaling a joint operation with the Iraqi government against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Iraq after completing a major offensive in Syria, Turkish analysts said.

"Ankara said many months ago that it will make everything in its power to eliminate the terrorist threat at its borders and is now doing it, so an incursion in Iraq after Syria will not come as a big surprise," said Oytun Orhan, a researcher at the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that the military campaign in Afrin, an enclave in northern Syria, against a Kurdish militia alongside Syrian rebels, will end by May and, additionally, that Ankara and Bagdad will then conduct a joint operation against the PKK.

"There is still plenty of time until May and Afrin city center are now encircled by Turkish troops who captured Thursday the strategic town of Jandairis. So Turkey will be capable then to stretch its military muscles towards northern Iraq," pointed out Orhan, a specialist of the Middle East.

Jandairis is about 15 km away from central Afrin, the last major Kurdish outpost.

Afrin center main target

The capture of Afrin city will accomplish the mission announced by the Turkish leadership. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that once Turkish troops capture Afrin, they would advance to Manbij, a Kurdish-held city further east where U.S. special troops are stationed, and from there to the Iraqi border.

But it seems now that the Manbij option has been overtaken by a joint operation in Iraq, in order apparently to avoid a clash between Turkey and U.S., the two largest armies of NATO while both countries are engaged in a tension diffusing diplomacy.

Officials from both countries held on Thursday a first meeting in Washington in line with decisions taken during a make-or-break visit in December in Ankara of State Secretary Rex Tillerson to form mechanisms to discuss festering contentious issues.

The Turkish military's offensive in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin was launched in January and continues to rage, with U.S.-backed People's Protection Units (YPG) forces in eastern Syria saying on Tuesday that they had decided to pull back from fronts against the Islamic State (IS) to battle Turkey in Afrin.

The YPG is seen as Syrian affiliate to the PKK, which has been waging a bloodied insurgency for Kurdish self-rule inside Turkey since 1984.

While the PKK is listed as a terrorist movement by Washington, the YPG isn't, allowing the American administration to arm the YPG, leading to a major crisis in Turkish-U.S. relations.

Erdogan, who rejected international warnings to refrain from a military operation in Syria prior to the ongoing incursion, also insisted that Turkey is not invading Syria, as claimed by some western countries and media, stating that the goal of the mission is merely to neutralize the existentialist threat that the YPG fighters pose at her border.

"Now that strategically Turkey is on the verge of dealing a fatal blow to YPG in Afrin, rather than risk a grave confrontation with U.S. troops in eastern Syria. Turkey would choose the option to deal with the PKK terrorists in the Iraqi side of the border," said Serkan Demirtas, Hurriyet Daily News Ankara representative.

He added that the Iraqi phase is in complementary to Ankara's strategic ambitions to deal with the PKK/YPG threat as a whole.

Joint opearation after Iraqi elections

Cavusoglu said that the joint campaign against the PKK would begin after Iraq's upcoming national elections, scheduled for May 12.

When asked what would happen if the Afrin operation is not completed by that date, the Turkish top diplomat replied that Turkey, "is capable of conducting two operations at the same time," reflecting the self-confidence the Syria incursion gave to Ankara which is actually more powerful on the regional front.

"Now that Jandaris has fallen, Turkish special forces will begin to encircle Afrin center," insisted Abdullah Agar, an expert on security affairs, pointing out that without tackling the PKK in Iraq subsequently, Turkey could not reduce the security threat to which it is confronted.

"All connections of the YPG to the Turkish border have been cut and a new phase of Operation Olive Branch has now begun," he said, quoted by the Sabah Daily.

The foreign minister gave no further details, but some signals of a cooperation between Ankara and Bagdad are very much there: Turkish Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar visited last week Bagdad to discuss military strategy.

"We would like to boost our relations and collaborate over the war against terrorism and border security," Akar told reporters in the Iraqi capital.

According to Oytun Orhan, Turkey has put the diplomatic machine in motion months ago and has seemingly convinced the Iraqi central government on the necessity of hitting PKK hideouts in northern Iraq, inside the Kurdistan autonomous region (KRG).

"It will not possibly terminate the terrorist threat, but it will surely minimize and contain it, to the levels of before the Syrian war," said Orhan.

Turkey's goal is indeed to weaken the Kurdish self-rule imposed to this multicultural ethnic region of northern Syria under the green light of Russia, the Syrian regime's main military ally, who would want that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad return to Afrin, once the Turkish army withdraws from the enclave, argued this expert.

The PKK has a substantial presence in northern Iraq, including in the mountainous Qandil region along the Turkish and Iranian borders and also in Sincar region. Its fighters, which number in thousands, are engaged in a decades-long insurgency against the government of Turkey.

Turkish Air Force launches frequent raids against PKK camps in Iraq and the plans for a joint offensive follows a Turkish-Iraqi rapprochement stemming from both countries' strong opposition to a referendum organized last year in the KRG that resulted in a yes vote for separation from Bagdad.

Turkish Prime minister Binali Yildirim confirmed on Friday that "close cooperation" has been engaged with the Bagdad administration in regards to combating the PKK on Iraqi soil and indicated that a joint operation was in the works. "The PKK is a common threat to the region."

Turkey has since the early 1990's organized several small or big cross-border ground operations against the PKK in northern Iraq, justifying it by international right of "hot pursuit" after rebels attacked military targets inside Turkey from their Iraqi bases.