Turkish tank en route to the Syrian border-town of Jarablus. AFP photo.
Turkey’s military intervention in Syria one week ago, aimed at hitting Syrian Kurdish affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is not the first time that Turkish forces have crossed an international border to strike Kurdish rebels.
In 1995, Turkey launched a large-scale incursion (Operation Steel), involving 35,000 soldiers into the Qandil Mountains, but ultimately that failed to uproot the PKK there. Ankara followed that up with Operation Hammer two years later, with at least 30,000 troops. That operation did not end in a decisive victory for the Turkish Army either.
A similar but much smaller operation commenced in February 2008, and intermittent airstrikes against PKK positions in those mountains continue to the present day.
Also, in 1998 the Turkish military threatened to attack Syria if the regime in Damascus continued to give sanctuary to the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. Turkish armor rolled up to the border, compelling then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to send Ocalan into exile. Ocalan was captured in Kenya less than six months later and has remained in prison in Turkey ever since.
Analysts contacted by Rudaw English noted similarities and differences between Turkey’s previous efforts to reach across international borders to strike at the PKK and its current operations in Syria.
The current operation “is more similar to the 1995 Turkish incursion into Iraq to push out the PKK, which ended up in failure for Turkey, insofar as the PKK stayed and Turkey withdrew,” said Aliza Marcus, author of ‘Blood and Belief: The P.K.K. and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.’
“But overall, I don’t see any parallels with any other Turkish military operation. This one stands on its own,” she added.
Aaron Stein, a Turkish affairs specialist at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington DC, believes the fact that the Turks never held onto the territory they captured during those past ground operations against the PKK in Qandil is a precedent they should be wary of repeating in northwestern Syria.
“Syria is obviously a unique situation, but Turkey has sent troops over the border into Iraq on numerous occasions to fight the PKK. Those previous incursions, however, failed to hold territory taken, something that Turkish planners must now be mindful of, now that they have committed troops to Syria,” Stein told Rudaw English.
This implies that in order not to repeat the shortcomings of these past Qandil operations, Turkey must seek to establish a more permanent presence in the Jarablus area, where its tanks and soldiers struck to get at the Syrian Kurdish Peoples Protection Units (YPG), the PKK’s affiliate in Syria.
“If this is phase one of a larger operation, perhaps for Al-Bab, then I could see Turkey needing to have a larger presence inside Syria to sustain operations,” Stein said. “If, however, Turkey intends to only hug the border and to push much beyond 20 kilometers, I think they can still run logistics from Soylu, the village near Karkamis where they are currently supporting the operation from.”
Barin Kayaoglu, a Middle East analyst and assistant professor of history at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, believes that a mild comparison at best can be made between the present operations in Syria and Turkey’s past efforts to get at the PKK.
“On the face of it one can look at the Turkish incursion into Syria in the same light as successive Turkish military operations into northern Iraq in the 1990s and 2000s. Neither Baghdad nor Erbil could control or block the PKK’s bases in the Qandil mountains, so the Turks regularly conducted operations there,” Kayaoglu told Rudaw English.
“But at another level,” he added, “there is no precedent for the Turkish operation in Syria, mostly because the Syrian civil war, with the partial exception of the Lebanese civil war, is quite unprecedented. Too many in-country factions, too many outside players, and both U.S. and Russia have assumed direct roles.”
Kayaoglu says Turkey is part of this broader “game”. And while Ankara’s primary aim in Syria is to marginalize the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) Kayaoglu views Turkey’s present operation as part of “the bigger Turkish interest to be an actor in the Syrian conflict.”
“Ankara wants to have a big say over Syria’s fate, and judging from the US and Russian experiences, bombing this or that target in the country seems to accomplish that goal,” Kayaoglu reasoned.
“Of course, actually ending the bloodshed in Syria is a different matter,” he added.
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.