Turkey conducts troop movements in the Silopi area of southeastern Turkey near the Kurdistan Region's border. Photo: AA
The Turkish military is engaging in a military exercise directly on its border with the Kurdistan Region which is purposely coinciding with the upcoming independence referendum. This show of strength is doubtlessly symbolic and is unlikely to develop into anything more than, at most, a limited cross-border operation solely targeting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Approximately 100 tanks and howitzer launchers are participating in this border exercise, a formidable array of firepower right on the region's doorstep. Ankara says this force is there to destroy, in Prime Minister Binali Yildirim's words, “any attempt that threatens our national security, from inside or outside our borders.”
Turkey has pressured Kurdish President Masoud Barzani to cancel the September 25 referendum, something Barzani is adamantly pushing forward. While Turkey remains opposed to the idea of an independent Kurdistan Region Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) continues to constitute a major factor for stability in the Kurdistan Region and the only region neighbouring Turkey which it retains friendly ties with. This will remain true regardless of whether or not the region becomes independent or not.
When the Turkish government views developments across northern Iraq as objectionable it invariably likes to flex its military muscles. Last year ahead of the Mosul operation it similarly massed its forces on the border to Silopi, threatening to intervene against the Shiite-majority Hashd al-Shaabi forces if they harmed Sunni Turkmen in Tal Afar. Such an intervention never took place. Turkey has also threatened on numerous occasions to intervene against the PKK in Shingal but has yet to do anything – with the sole exception of an airstrike last April which ended up killing Peshmerga soldiers rather than the intended PKK targets.
Invading Kurdistan to prevent separation from Iraq would also weaken Barzani and empower other groups less friendly to Turkey, possibly even the PKK. This would be a far worse outcome for Turkey.
If these current maneuvers amount to anything other than a show of strength it will likely be stepped up attacks on the PKK, more airstrikes on Qandil and possibly a small ground incursion just over the border. For months there have been statements from Turkish leaders and rumours in the Turkish press that Ankara planned to follow up its concluded Euphrates Shield campaign in Syria (against both Islamic State and the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units) with a similar Tigris Shield operation in the Kurdistan Region.
Tigris Shield would likely entail sending ground forces to Khabur, which is where the borders between the Kurdistan Region, Turkey and Syria meet and is therefore an ideal crossing area for PKK operations in the wider region. A limited but highly publicized operation there along with intensified airstrikes against PKK could be presented at home as Turkey doing something to contain and counter these forces while doing nothing more about the referendum than voicing opposition to, and spreading conspiracy theories about, it.
In the long-term Ankara might also offer Baghdad to withdraw its controversial troop presence from Bashiqa near Mosul in return for increased local efforts to compel, or even force, the PKK to leave Shingal, another development Ankara could present as victory to the Turkish public in lieu of taking military action against the Kurdistan Region itself.
Ankara recently extended its troops deployed in both northwest Syria and Iraq's Bashiqa. While this decision does come just two days before the Kurdish referendum it is unlikely a move aimed at forcibly thwarting this endeavour. After all, the parliamentary mandate was initially improved in October 2014 and renewed, before this month, in September 2015 and October 2016, meaning this renewed mandate is more coincidental than intentional.
Turkey is more likely to channel the momentum it has built up at home against the referendum into action against its more traditional Kurdish enemies, the PKK and more recently PYD Syrian Kurds, neither of whom Erbil has good relations with. This salient distinction hasn't been lost on Ankara, which clearly distinguished the Peshmerga from other Kurdish groups by offering the wounded among them medical treatment last year during the ISIS war.
[Even before Turkish authorities made any real distinction between the PKK and the Kurdistan Region's leaders it didn't intervene with the 70,000 troops it had deployed on Kurdistan's borders, a much larger force than today's one, back in 2003.]
Ankara will not welcome the referendum nor ultimately independence. However, when faced with the clear outcome that directly attacking Kurdistan, to try and forcibly prevent these inevitable developments, will amount to little more than shooting itself in the foot, reality will ultimately compel it to come to terms.