Overnight between 14-15 June, Turkish Air Force aircraft conducted airstrikes against alleged PKK locations in diverse environments of northern Iraq. In conjunction with these events, the Turkish Defense Ministry announced the launch of Operation Claw-Eagle against PKK bases in the Sinjar, Qandil, Karacak, Zap, Avasin-Basyan, and Hakurk regions. The Turkish military added that 22 F-16 fighter-jets and an unidentified number of UAVs and other support aircraft participated in these airstrikes, attacking up to 81 targets. “Our planes are bringing the caves down on the terrorists’ heads,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said, while not discussing casualty estimates. “The PKK and other terrorist elements are threatening the security of our people and borders with attacks increasing every day on the areas of our outposts and bases,” it added.
One noteworthy set of airstrikes targeted six Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) bases in the Sinjar district, western Nineveh province. The YBS claimed that casualties were limited to four YBS wounded. Another noteworthy airstrike targeted alleged PKK locations near the Makhmour Refugee Camp, located south of Erbil. No casualties were reported. The PKK asserted that none of their fighters were killed during the spike in airstrikes between 14-15 June. Although unreported casualties were possible, the very moderate casualties initially reported stood out in stark contrast with the perceived scale of these airstrikes. As discussed below, this suggested political motives outweighed operational objectives as the predominant motive.
Tensions were elevated in the immediate aftermath, with PKK forces concerned about the potential for renewed Turkish ground offensives, and the Turkish military apparently concerned about the potential for retaliatory attacks against border outposts. On 15 June, unnamed sources stated that Turkish forces reinforced their positions in the Bradost region in northeastern Erbil province. Meanwhile, the PKK vowed that they would fiercely respond to any attack. No major ground fighting was reported in the days following the airstrikes.
GoI denounces violation of Iraqi sovereignty:
The PKK and YBS strongly denounced the airstrikes, comparing the Turkish actions to the atrocities conducted by IS. “The true face of the genocidal Turkish state has been exposed once again by these attacks against our people in Makhmour Refugee Camp who fled the atrocities of the occupant Turkish state and the Ezidi people in Shangal [Sinjar] who have resisted and fought against ISIS [Islamic State],” said a statement. “These attacks on Makhmour and Shangal are no different from the ISIS mentality.”
Selami Haktan, a Turkish journalist specializing in military affairs, described the strikes as a preemptive offensive ahead of an anticipated wave of Kurdish attacks. “The Turkish Army’s operation targeting the PKK last night was in retaliation for the PKK’s decision that it will increase its activities on the Turkish soil,” said Haktan. “The PKK has been attacking the Turkish border forces for a while. We all knew that the PKK was in massive preparation, and waiting for its time to cross the borders.” Additional media reports suggested that the strikes were launched hours before planned pro-Kurdish protests in Turkey. The protests were to denounce the stripping of the parliamentary immunities and arrest of a number of key Kurdish politicians.
On 15 June, the Iraqi Joint Operations Command condemned the deep violation of Iraqi airspace in Makhmour and Sinjar and the targeting of the refugee camp. The statement stressed that the “provocative behavior is inconsistent with the obligations of good neighborliness in accordance with international agreements and is a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty.” As once again demonstrated by these events, the GoI tends to ignore Turkish operations in the KR-I, but will openly criticize significant breaches in GoI-administered territory. Beyond harshly-worded statements, the GoI has demonstrated little intent to decisively deter further airstrikes in Iraqi territory.
Meanwhile, the KRG predictably refrained from discussing the new air campaign in a reflection of longstanding security and economic ties between the KRG and Turkish government. However, some Kurdish politicians spoke out on an individual basis. The KRG’s official silence did not go unnoticed.
On the afternoon of 15 June, several demonstrations were reported in diverse environments of northern Iraq. This included peaceful assemblies and protest marches near Sinjar, near the Makhmour Refugee Camp, Sulaymaniyah city, Rania city, and Erbil city. Participants denounced the new air campaign, calling on the KRG and GoI to initiate serious responses to repeated Turkish violations of Iraqi sovereignty. The only incident was reported during an assembly outside the UN Compound in Erbil city on the afternoon of 15 June. Asayish personnel temporarily detained 24 individuals while dispersing the event, citing a lack of permits and the coronavirus crisis.
For further detailed discussion and analysis please see the full report.