Ankara Needs More Time to Crush PKK Havens

Before getting into its stride, the Turkish cross-border campaign in pursuit of Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists in northern Iraq has struck large impediments in its first week: grim weather conditions and grimmer American pressure to back off within days.

Some 5,000 of the 35,000 troops allotted for the Turkish operation crossed the border Feb. 21, backed by tanks and air force units. Official Turkish communiques on progress are still tentative, enveloped in the same thick mists that swirl over the snowbound Qandil Mountains and trackless wastes, where the PKK fighters are holed up.

Wednesday, Feb. 27, before he even arrived in Ankara, US defense secretary Robert Gates said in New Delhi: “It’s very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible, and then leave.” To make himself clear, he added: “I measure quick in terms of days, a week or two, something like that. Not months.”

In another sign of impatience, Gates added: “I think our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows us that while dealing with a terrorist problem does require security operations, it also requires economic and political initiatives.”

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that Washington and Ankara are profoundly at odds over the nature and time-scale of the Turkish offensive and its objectives.

While Gates talked about days, Turkish prime minister Tayyep Erdogan and chief of staff Gen. Yasar Buyukyanit spoke this week in terms of months – roughly, the second half of April – for the operation’s termination.

This was the reasoning they offered the visiting US defense secretary:

1. So far so good, they said, because the PKK fighters did not expect Turkish troops to brave the daily blizzards over the snow-covered Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq, which tower 10,000-13,500 feet high.


Final objective: A buffer zone in Iraq


2. But after this promising start, the Turkish army was severely slowed down by deep snow drifts. Only small commando units trained to fight in snow-covered mountainous terrain and below freezing temperatures were getting through. And they too needed helicopter support for moving around, supplies and evacuating the dead and wounded.

3. Against these impediments, the Turkish army has so far penetrated only as far as 16 km into Iraqi Kurdistan in seven days, and fought only one engagement on the fringes of the war arena.

The key rebel strongholds, Hakurk and Zap, are 20 kilometers as the crow flies south the Turkish border. However, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources note, their main mountainous hideouts are between 70 and 100 kilometers deep inside northern Iraq, situated in the triangle formed by the Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian borders.

By all informed accounts, therefore, the Turkish offensive, still in its initial stage, must pass through another three to reach its objectives

4. Those stages were presented to Robert Gates in Ankara this week.

One: For now, the Turkish army is slogging forward in segments: one group is jumped forward by helicopter, while a second slowly scours the terrain for Kurdish rebel bands on the move and the guns and explosives cached for terror operations in Turkey. At some point, the two segments meet up and repeat the leap-frog.

Two: In the next stage, Turkish forces will mass at a point deep (100 km) inside the Qandil Mountains for a concentrated assault on the PKK’s main hideouts. This operation must wait for the weather to improve – not before the spring thaw some time in April

Three: The operation will culminate in a buffer zone under Turkish military control set up in northern Iraq to separate Iraqi Kurdistan from southern Turkey and obstruct PKK border infiltrations for attacks in Turkey.


Erdogan’s overtures to Barzani


DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report the buffer strip’ estimated width will be 3 to 5 km. It is planned to be bounded north and south by two new electronic security fences and manned by a large Turkish garrison with tanks. Military posts will overlook patches too craggy for fences, aided by scattered early warning sensors for picking up furtive movements.

These fences will take at least four months to build, bringing the termination of the Turkish offensive in Iraq closer to July than the days or weeks laid down by Secretary Gates.

The buffer scheme, first revealed here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, was therefore not presented to him in Ankara.

5. Ankara is also keeping up its sleeve a long-term operational option dictated by a key imponderable. Uncertain as to when or how the current operation against the PKK turns out, Turkish war planners want to reserve the option of freezing it for a few weeks in April in order to take stock for a while before deciding how to proceed next.

This would take the Turkish cross-border campaign in northern Iraq up until the summer of 2008.

Under no illusion that the US defense secretary would find this projected timeline acceptable, the Turkish prime minister took the precaution of hedging his bets.

Shortly before Gates arrived in Ankara, Erdogan sent his chief foreign policy adviser, Ahmet Davutoglu, to Baghdad and to Irbil, capital of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. His mission was to work out understandings with both governments before Turkey embarks on the next critical stages of the campaign.


Will the PKK fight or melt away?


The Turkish emissary’s visit to Baghdad was merely a courtesy call. Although the Nouri al-Maliki government demanded Wednesday that the Turks withdraw from northern Iraq forthwith, there is no way it can force Ankara to do so.

His real mission was in Irbil, to talk the Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani‘s people round to going along with the Turkish military operation all the way until its objectives are successfully attained.

Davutoglu hoped to repeat his earlier success, a secret deal with Barzani and his aides ahead of the Turkish ground offensive of Feb. 21, for non-interference by the local army, the peshmerga. The Iraqi Kurds kept to the bargain by merely going through the motions of sending a peshmerga brigade only as far as Dohuk (as reported by debkafile – see HOT POINTS below).

The outcome of this mission was unknown when this issue closed.

As the offensive moves forward, Turkish war planners must take into account obstacles over and above US time limits, rough weather and forbidding terrain.

The first is the PKK’s military capabilities, which must be correctly assessed in advance.

The Kurdish separatists are believed to confront several thousand well-equipped Turkish troops, backed by substantial air and tanks forces, with approximately 7,500 fighting men – 4,000 of whom are Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian PKK adherents; 1,500 belong to the PKK’s Iranian offshoot, the PAJK – Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan; and 2,000 are female members of the PKK’s women’s corps.

While caught unawares by the onset of the Turkish invasion, the Kurds showed signs of recovery after four days and counter-attacked in the Zhaou region, inflicting dozens of Turkish casualties and almost halting their advance.


A US intelligence cutoff would hobble the Turkish campaign


The PKK then slapped down ultimatums for the Ankara and Irbil governments:

Turkey forces must back off or face a suicide campaign in its main cities.

The Iraqi Kurdish regime must choose between withdrawing support from the Turkish offensive and facing the prospect of thousands of rebels spreading out fully armed in Iraqi Kurdistani cities. In this case, they would desert their hideouts and let them fall into the hands of the Turkish army without a fight.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraqi sources report that this prospect fills Kurdistan president Barzani with dread. Marauding terrorists would be a destabilizing element for the relatively calm autonomous region; on the loose, they are capable of terrorizing the local populace, attacking government institutions and disrupting the smooth trading ties the Barzani regime has established with neighboring Turkey.

While it is to Barzani’s advantage to help the Turks rid the Kurdish republic of PKK sanctuaries, he will find it hard to explain to his own people, including the peshmerga, the betrayal of their Turkish kith and kin.

The second potential obstacle, unmentioned so far by any party, is the red-hot issue of oil, which is once again on stream from northern Iraq.

Unlike al Qaeda and Iraq’s Sunni insurgents, the PKK have never touched the oil fields and installations around Kirkuk or the pipe lines taking the oil to the Turkish port of Ceyran and on to world markets. Sabotage, if it reared its head, would be hugely harmful to both Iraq and Turkey.

The third obstacle hanging over Ankara’s head is a potential US cutoff of the intelligence its spy satellites have been collecting on behalf of the Turkish army and air force on PKK movements and activities in the targeted areas of northern Iraq.

The failure of Turkish leaders and Gates to reach an understanding this week on the shape and time scale of the cross-border expedition against the Kurdish rebels could result in the reduction or even discontinuation of this flow of vital intelligence. Its loss would seriously clip Turkey’s military wings.

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