On Sunday President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the beginning of Turkish military operations in Iraq’s Sinjar region a week after Turkey and allied Syrian FSA groups captured Afrin from Kurdish fighters. During that prior victory speech immediately on the heels of the Syrian Kurdish retreat from Afrin, Erdogan had promised further “extensions” of his forces in the region, including into Eastern Syria and Iraq, while making repeat historical references to the Ottoman empire.
Erdogan warned at the time that Turkish troops would keep pushing east further into Syrian Kurdish YPG territory (Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” which Turkey considers an extension of the terrorist PKK), which would eventually pit his forces against the US armed and trained Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
During Sunday’s speech he pledged to take Tal Rifaat (northwest of Aleppo) and Manbij: “the U.S. needs to transfer the control of Manbij to its real owners from the terrorist organization as soon as possible,” according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet. US-backed forces are present in both places.
Erdogan also in typically brazen fashion put Iraq’s government on notice, saying “We have told the central [Iraqi] government that the PKK is establishing a new headquarters in Sinjar. If you can deal with it, you handle it. But if you cannot we will suddenly enter Sinjar one night and clear this region of terrorists.”
It appears he is ready to make good on that promise, as the AP reports:
Turkey’s president has announced the country is conducting operations in northern Iraq against Kurdish rebels it deems “terrorists.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday said “operations” have begun in Sinjar to clear the mountainous area of Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, fighters.
Erdogan later said that if the PKK does not vacate Sinjar and Qandil, where it has its headquarters, “it would be inevitable for us to do so personally.”
Erdogan announced the new engagement to a crowd in the Black Sea province of Trabzon, declaring: “We said we would go into Sinjar. Now operations have begun there. The fight is internal and external.” However, it is unclear to what degree he is merely further reiterating his prior threats and to what degree the mustering of Turkish forces for an Iraq incursion has actually begun on the ground.
Reuters quickly cast doubt that ground operations had actually been initiated, citing Iraq’s Joint Operations Command which denied that foreign forces had crossed the border:
Iraq’s Joint Operations Command denied that any foreign forces had crossed the border into Iraq.
“The operations command confirmed that the situation in Nineveh, Sinjar and the border areas was under the control of Iraqi security forces and there is no reason for troops to cross the Iraqi border into those areas,” it said in a statement.
Sources in Sinjar said there was no unusual military activity in the area on Sunday.
Meanwhile, regional Arabic media has reported that a large Iraqi Army contingent has arrived in Sinjar on the heels of a withdrawal of PKK fighters from the region – actions which Erdogan’s threats were clearly designed to precipitate.
PKK fighters first moved into Sinjar in 2015 and waged an effective campaign against ISIS, but announced their withdrawal last week in the wake of Turkey’s threat of invasion, though it is unclear how many PKK fighters have remained in the area.
For now, it appears that Erdogan – fresh off the momentum of the Turkish annexation of Afrin – has gotten Baghdad to move on the PKKwithout firing a single shot. And it appears he is trying the same tactic regarding the US-backed SDF, which is unlikely to move the Americans toward action or realignment of interests.
During the same speech announcing operations in Sinjar, Erdogan said, “Hopefully we will take control of Tal Rifaat in a short span of time.” He also threatened Syrian Kurds in Manbij while naming their US sponsors: “the U.S. needs to transfer the control of Manbij to its real owners from the terrorist organization as soon as possible,” according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet.
In comparison to his rhetoric aimed at the Iraqi government, the Turkish president’s words regarding American forces were softened: “Of course we will not point gun to our allies, but we will not forgive terrorists.”
It will be interesting to see to what degree the ‘mad Sultan’ actually makes good on his threats and promises, especially as his forces inevitably inch closer to American bases in northern Syria.