Operation Claw-Lock: Turkey's conflict with the PKK

7 min read
27 April, 2022
Analysis: The intensity of Turkey's latest cross-border operation in Iraqi Kurdistan has put unprecedented pressure on the PKK.

Last week Turkish Armed Forces launched their latest cross-border operation, codenamed Claw-Lock, against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The operation is the latest phase in Turkey's post-2015 efforts to reduce the PKK's freedom of movement and gradually strangle it and its affiliates.

Operation Claw-Lock is the successor of the similarly named joint air and ground operations Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt in 2021 and Claw-Eagle and Claw-Tiger in 2020.

Both those campaigns sought to exert greater pressure on the PKK and entrench the Turkish army in areas they operate. 

These operations are much more sophisticated than Turkey's previous ones in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s and 2008.

"The operation is the latest phase in Turkey's post-2015 efforts to reduce the PKK's freedom of movement and gradually strangle it and its affiliates"

The Turkish military is carrying out helicopter-borne commando raids on mountains and into caves and targeted assassinations of senior PKK members using increasingly sophisticated armed drones.

Unlike past operations usually concluded by winter (giving the PKK time to recoup, regroup, and reorganise), Turkish forces are hunkering down and maintaining the pressure and gains made in these operations all year round through the establishment of an increasing number of military outposts and forward operating bases in strategically important areas. 

While these operations have failed to decisively rout the PKK from its Qandil stronghold, an insurmountable objective for even the most powerful and sophisticated militaries, they have put unprecedented pressure on the group. 

It is necessary to recount Turkish operations in its Kurdish-majority southeast, Iraqi Kurdistan, and northern Syria to put Claw-Lock in its proper perspective. 

In July 2015, the ceasefire established between Turkey and the PKK in 2013 completely collapsed and the conflict reignited with renewed intensity and violence.

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Over the next year, Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast experienced levels of violence not seen since the 1990s. The PKK fought against the Turkish security forces in urban centres.

By the time Turkey prevailed, after imposing punishing months-long curfews on entire city districts, large swathes of Kurdish-majority towns and cities were reduced to heaps of debris. 

Turkey also resumed airstrikes against Qandil Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan, long the group's main headquarters. Shortly after the July 2015 ceasefire broke down, the Turkish Air Force sent over 50 of its fighter-bombers on six hours of raids against suspected PKK targets across the region. 

Turkey also set its sights on northern Syria. The Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG), carved out a de-facto statelet in northeast Syria in 2012 as the country descended into civil war.

The group was, and is, the Syrian wing of the PKK. The US partnered with the YPG in 2014, helping them break the vicious months-long siege Islamic State (IS) imposed on the Syrian Kurdish border city of Kobani with supporting airstrikes.

In 2015, the YPG formed the larger multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that went on the offensive against IS with the decisive backing of the multinational US-led coalition. 

Kurds protest of Abdullah Ocalan (Getty)
Kurdish activists wave flags during a protest calling for the release of Abdullah Ocalan, a founding member of the PKK. [Getty]

Turkey opposed the group forming what it called a "terror corridor" across northern Syria. By 2015, the SDF controlled two-thirds of northern Syria’s border regions, extending from the Iraqi border in the east to the east bank of the Euphrates River.

IS militants occupied a large swath of territory separating the Syrian Kurdish canton of Kobani from the northwestern enclave of Afrin, an isolated northwestern Syrian Kurdish region also controlled by the YPG. The US-led coalition supported the SDF's advance westwards across the Euphrates River against IS, leading to the brutal urban battle to capture the city of Manbij in the summer of 2016. 

Turkey vehemently opposed any prospect of a land bridge being established between Kobani and Afrin, which would have put most of Syria's border with Turkey under the SDF's control.

Thus, in August 2016, Turkey launched its first cross-border offensive into Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield. That operation primarily focused on IS, although Turkish military and allied militia proxy forces did also clash with the YPG.

The operation ended with the capture of the Arab-majority city of al-Bab from IS after a bloody battle in March 2017. Turkey retained its troops and militia proxies in what became known as the Euphrates Shield Zone.

"These operations have put unprecedented pressure on the PKK and could inflict a mortal blow on the group if they continue with this level of intensity and sophistication"

Turkey also set its sights on the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, where IS infamously subjected the Yazidi religious minority to an infamous campaign of genocide beginning in August 2014. The PKK intervened against IS and saved thousands of Yazidis in the process.

It retained its presence there and established a Yazidi offshoot called the Sinjar Protection Units (YBS). Turkey has repeatedly condemned the PKK's presence there for years now, invariably vowing it won’t allow a "second Qandil" to be established there.

Sinjar is strategically important for the PKK and its Syrian wing since it enables its fighters to transit overland from Qandil to northeast Syria. On the early morning of 25 April 2017, the Turkish Air Force carried out simultaneous airstrikes targeting the YPG in Syria and the PKK in Sinjar. 

In Syria, having consolidated its presence in the Euphrates Shield Zone and dashing any chance for the SDF/YPG to link its northeastern heartlands with Afrin, Turkey outright invaded Afrin in early 2018.

The invasion, perversely codenamed Olive Branch, displaced thousands of Kurdish civilians and ended with Turkey's Syrian militia proxies looting civilian homes and businesses in broad daylight. The occupation continues to the present day and has caused numerous human rights abuses. 

Shortly after it conquered Afrin, Turkey upped the pressure against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, beginning a string of extensive air and ground operations that continues to the present day. Dubbed 'Tigris Shield' by Turkish media, it was the most significant Turkish operation in Iraqi Kurdistan since the short-lived Operation Sun in late February 2008, just over a decade earlier.

As it did in subsequent operations over the next four years, Turkey also expanded its networks of bases and outposts, establishing military bases in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan's Erbil province for the first time. 

Then, the following August, in an unprecedented move, Turkey assassinated senior PKK member Zaki Shingali in Sinjar in an air or drone strike on his convoy, proving for the first time Turkey's capability to assassinate high-profile opponents from the air with precision-guided munitions. Ankara would proceed to assassinate several other senior PKK members using its armed drones. 

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Turkey began the first in its series of annual 'Claw' operations in the region a year later, in May 2019, incrementally expanding its military presence and pressure on the PKK.

Then, in October 2019, Turkey launched another major cross-border operation in northern Syria, this time on the Kurdish heartland east of the Euphrates River. Operation Peace Spring began after then-US President Donald Trump drew down the US troop presence in the region after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey, again using its militia proxies, invaded a swath of territory between Kobani and Jazira, occupying the cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. Turkey stopped its offensive after reaching separate ceasefire negotiations with Russia and the United States and retained its hold of the new areas it had invaded. 

By 2020, data showed that the vast majority, 77 percent to be precise, of clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK were taking part in Iraq rather than southeast Turkey, the site of the bloody urban battles of 2016.

Shortly after the launch of Operation Claw-Lock, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said the operation will “completely lock the border line” between Iraq and Turkey to the PKK. “It will not be possible for terrorists to enter our borders,” he said.

It's unclear how far the newly launched Claw-Lock will go. What is, on the other hand, clear is that these operations have put unprecedented pressure on the PKK and could inflict a mortal blow on the group if they continue with this level of intensity and sophistication.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon