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Turkish military launches second phase of Operation Claw-Eagle

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On the morning of 10 February, the Turkish Ministry of Defense announced the launch of the second phase of Operation Claw-Eagle in the Gara region of Duhok province. The stated intent was to “neutralize the PKK and other terrorist elements from northern Iraq” in response to indicators that PKK continued to “re-establish shelters and positions and was preparing for a large-scale attack.” The Turkish Ministry of Defense asserted that the preemptive operation was carried out within “our right of self-defense based on international law.”

At approximately 02:55 on 10 February, according to reports from various sources, heavy Turkish airstrikes and artillery strikes targeted suspected PKK locations near at least six villages in areas along the Gara Mountains, located south of Amedi town in eastern Duhok province. This included airstrikes in the Siyani area of Amedi district, and the Piriz area of the Akre district. According to local sources, the airstrikes caused significant damages to agricultural lands, encouraging a number of local residents to displace as a result.

A Turkish commando unit, supported by AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and UH-60 Blackhawk transport helicopters, subsequently conducted an air assault operation in the Siyani area. Limited reports described the deployment of hundreds of Turkish military personnel, indicating a battalion-sized operation. The PKK claimed the operation involved more than a thousand Turkish soldiers and dozens of aircraft in a likely embellishment. Airstrikes continued to be reported through around 05:00, with Turkish aircraft subsequently continuing to loiter over the area.

Zagros Hiwa, the spokesperson of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the umbrella organization for PKK-linked groups, and other PKK sources, claimed that one of the airstrikes targeted a prison housing captured Turkish military and intelligence personnel being held as Prisoners of War (POW) in an unspecified area along the Gara Mountains. No further details were released. These statements insinuated that the first stage of Operation Claw Eagle-2 may have been partially intended to locate and rescue Turkish POWs believed to have been held in the area. However, neither the PKK nor the Turkish government discussed the recovery of POWs, indicating the attempts were unsuccessful if at all accurate.

Both sides sustained a number of casualties during ensuing clashes. On 11 February, the Turkish Ministry of Defense confirmed that four soldiers were killed during Operation Claw Eagle-2. Three soldiers were killed on 10 February, with the fourth succumbing to his wounds the following day. Three other soldiers were wounded. The Ministry added that the Turkish military “dealt a heavy blow” to the PKK during the operation, but the Ministry initially refrained from releasing specific figures for PKK casualties. Meanwhile, the PKK claimed that at least nine Turkish soldiers were killed during associated heavy clashes.

PKK sources cited what were described as ongoing clashes and Turkish aviation operations in this sector through 11 February. More specific tactical reporting pertaining to new clashes and airstrikes on 11 February was elusive amongst a host of reporting challenges. It was unclear if the onset of Operation Claw Eagle-2 comprised a limited operation or intent to field a persistent presence in the Gara Mountains. There was no specific discussion of new positions being constructed.

Questionable claims that Turkish forces detained PKK official in Sinjar:
In another relevant development on 10 February, unnamed Turkish security sources claimed that Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) forces conducted an operation in an unspecified area of the Sinjar district, western Nineveh province. MIT forces reportedly detained Ibrahim Parim, codenamed Laser, who was described as a senior PKK logistics official active along the Syrian border. The operation was not initially confirmed by the GoI, local sources, or other credible sources.

Image of PKK official purportedly detained in Sinjar (unconfirmed, Turkish media)

The Turkish government has propagated similar reports in the past, but confirmation was typically elusive. While Turkish forces are certainly capable of conducting special operations raids in the Sinjar district, they have not demonstrated intent to carry out operations in this GoI-controlled territory and jeopardize already tenuous relations with the GoI. Without further confirmation from credible sources, this purported raid amounts to Turkish military posturing in response to frustrations over the implementation of the Sinjar Agreement as discussed further below.

Turkish forces intend to disrupt PKK presence in safe haven deep within Duhok province:
The Turkish military launched the first phases of Operation Claw-Eagle and Operation Claw-Tiger in June 2020. Operation Claw-Eagle comprised a spike in Turkish airstrikes against alleged PKK locations in diverse environments of northern Iraq as part of the longstanding Turkish air campaign. The more extensive Operation Claw-Tiger was conducted to expand an intended buffer zone in environments of the KR-I approaching the Turkish border. Key actions included Turkish commando units establishing a series of new outposts along key terrain features in northern Duhok province. Elevated Turkish strike activity resulted in the deaths of at least seven civilians during the opening phase of the operation, with at least 12 civilians killed and several others wounded by the conclusion.

GoI responses included the deployment of predominately Kurdish Iraqi Border Guard units to contested areas of northern Duhok and Erbil provinces in order to act as a buffer and reduce the intensity of associated conflict activity. The Turkish government reluctantly formally concluded Operation Claw-Tiger after a negligent Turkish airstrike killed two Iraqi Border Guard generals in August 2020. Routine Turkish airstrikes predictably continued.

By the end of this operation, Turkish forces had largely reached what could be considered their natural limits of advance for their buffer zones. PKK forces responses included the promotion of more secure historically prominent staging grounds, including the Gara Mountains of eastern Duhok province. The Turkish military attempted to pressure this stronghold through regular airstrikes and by encouraging the KRG to restrain PKK freedom of movement. KDP security forces boldly established dozens of new outposts in PKK-dominant sectors. Significant confrontations emerged on at least two occasions in late 2020, resulting in several casualties amongst KDP security personnel and PKK fighters. However, both Kurdish actors stressed their reluctance to escalate militant activity against one another, equating such actions to fratricide.

The transition between 2020 and 2021 was dominated by Turkish ambitions to counter pro-PKK freedom of movement in a GoI-controlled environment, particularly the Sinjar district of western Nineveh province. In October, the KRG and GoI signed the Sinjar Agreement as part of ambitions to normalize security and government administration in the dynamic district. This included Turkish-KRG ambitions to expel the YBS, a PKK-affiliated Yazidi militia, from the district. The GoI cautiously implemented elements of the agreement, fielding sizeable ISF units, but the YBS was permitted to remain semi-legitimate under the PMF. The GoI prioritized a mediated outcome to maintain stability despite strong criticisms from the Turkish government and KRG, who called for a more comprehensive removal.

For further discussion and analysis, please see the full report.

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