Turkey's push into Iraq risks a deeper conflict (2023)

SARARO, Iraq (Reuters) - Three Turkish military outposts loom over the deserted village of Sararo in northern Iraq, breaching the skyline, part of an incursion that forced residents to flee last year after days of shelling.

The outposts are just some of the dozens of new military bases Turkey has built on Iraqi soil over the past two years to bolster its decades-long offensive against Kurdish militants taking refuge in the remote and harsh region.

"When Turkey first came to the area, they set up small portable tents, but in the spring they set up outposts with brick and cement," Sararo's Mayor Abdulrahman Hussein Rashid said in December during a visit to the village, where shell casings and shrapnel always contaminate nor the floor.

“They have drones and cameras on duty 24/7. They know everything that's going on," he told Reuters as drones buzzed overhead in the mountainous terrain 5km from the border.

Turkey's advance across Iraq's increasingly depopulated Kurdistan border draws little global attention compared to its invasion of Syria or the fight against Islamic State, but the escalation threatens to further a region where foreign powers have intervened with impunity to destabilize, analysts say.

Turkey could become further implicated if its new Iraqi bases come under sustained attacks, while its growing presence could also embolden Iran to expand military action in Iraq against groups it accuses of fomenting unrest at home, Kurdish officials say.

Former Kurdistan Peshmerga Forces Secretary-General Jabar Manda said Turkey had 29 outposts in Iraq as of 2019, but the number has skyrocketed as Ankara seeks to halt Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) attacks on its own territory .

"Following the escalation of fighting between Turkish forces and the PKK, the outposts have been growing year by year," he said, estimating the current number at 87, mostly in a strip of borderland about 150 km (95 miles) long and 30 km deep.

"There are tanks and armored vehicles in these outposts," said Manda, who is now a security analyst in Sulaimaniyah. "Helicopters deliver to the outposts daily."


A Kurdish official, who asked not to be named, also said Turkey now has about 80 outposts in Iraq. Another Kurdish official said that at least 50 had been built in the past two years and that Turkey's presence was becoming more permanent.

When asked for comment on its bases in Iraq, Turkey's Defense Ministry said its operations there are in line with Article 51 of the UN Charter, which gives member states the right to self-defense in the event of attack.

"Our fight against terrorism in northern Iraq is being carried out in coordination and close cooperation with the Iraqi authorities," the ministry said in a statement, which did not answer questions about the numbers provided by Kurdish officials.

Turkey's presence in northern Iraq, long outside of the direct control of the Baghdad government, dates back to the 1990s when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein allowed Turkish troops to advance 5 km into the country to fight the PKK .

Since then, Turkey has established a significant presence, including a base in Bashiqa, 80 km inside Iraq, where Turkish troops are said to have been part of an international mission to train and equip Iraqi forces to fight Islamic State.

Turkey said it is working to avoid civilian casualties through its coordination with Iraqi authorities.

A report released in August by a coalition of NGOs, End Cross-Border Bombing, said at least 98 civilians were killed between 2015 and 2021. The International Crisis Group, which gave a similar civilian death toll, said 1,180 PKK militants were killed between 2015 and 2023.

According to an Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) official, the conflict has also emptied at least 800 villages since 2015, when a ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK collapsed, driving thousands of people from their homes.


Aside from the humanitarian implications, Turkey's incursion risks escalating the conflict by giving regional rival Iran carte blanche to step up intelligence operations in Iraq and take military action of its own, Kurdish officials say.

Tehran has already fired rockets at bases owned by Kurdish groups it accuses of being involved in protests against its restrictions on women, driving out hundreds of Iranian Kurds and killing some.

Iran did not respond to requests for comment.

Pro-Iranian militias in Iraq also have an excuse to respond to Turkey's presence, analysts say, raising the prospect of an escalation between Turkish forces and groups other than the PKK.

Hamdi Malik, a specialist on Iraqi Shia militias at the Washington Institute, said pro-Iranian groups like Liwa Ahrar al-Iraq (Free People of Iraq Brigade) and Ahrar Sinjar (Free People of Sinjar) rebranded themselves as the Resistance last year against the Turkish presence.

Attacks on Turkish military installations in Iraq increased from an average of 1.5 attacks per month in early 2022 to seven in April, according to a Washington Institute report.

If groups deeply hostile to Washington step up their operations, it would also undermine the influence of the United States and its 2,000 troops in Iraq, said Mustafa Gurbuz, a nonresident staffer at the Arab Center Washington.

"Turkey underestimates the strength of the opposition and the fact that these facilities will become targets in the future, all the more so as hostilities escalate," said Sajad Jiyad, a Baghdad-based analyst for The Century Foundation, a US think tank.

"Both have wronged us"

The fragmented politics of northern Iraq means that neither the federal government in Baghdad nor the KRG regional authority are strong enough to challenge Turkey's presence -- or achieve Ankara's goal of containing the PKK itself.

The Baghdad government has complained about Ankara's incursions but has little authority in the mainly Kurdish north, while the region's ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) lacks the firepower to challenge the PKK, despite viewing it as a powerful and populist rival .

The KDP has worked with Turkey in the past, but has limited influence over a neighbor that has far greater military and economic clout.

"We call on all foreign military groups - including the PKK - not to draw the Kurdistan Region into any conflict or tension," said KRG spokesman Jotiar Adil.

“The PKK is the main reason that has pushed Turkey to invade our territories in the Kurdistan Region. That's why we think the PKK should go," he said. "We are not a side in this longstanding conflict and we have no intention of being on any side."

Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani told Reuters the conflict between Turkey and the PKK is worrying but less urgent than the threat posed by the Islamic State.

Hariam Mahmoud, a leading figure in the Kurdistan Liberation Movement, a civilian opposition group in Iraq influenced by the ideas of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, said no matter how much Turkey pressures them, they will continue to resist.

"In our opinion, this is an occupation and fighting the resistance is a legitimate right," said Mahmoud, who lives in Garmiyan district, south of Sulaimaniya.

Meanwhile, civilians continue to pay the price.

Ramzan Ali, 72, was irrigating his field in Hirure, a few kilometers from Sararo, in 2021 when he heard a massive explosion. The next thing he remembers, he was lying on the ground covered in blood.

He said a Turkish shell hit his property - a regular occurrence when Turkish troops use artillery to respond to PKK attacks.

"I saw my life before my eyes," Ali said in the city of Zakho, where he still suffers from shrapnel wounds. “I am angry with both the PKK and Turkey. Both have wronged us.”

(Reporting by Amina Ismail in Sararo, Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Kawa Omar in Dohuk; Editing by Dominic Evans and David Clarke)

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