Turkey Invades Iraq’s Qandil Mountains – A Mid East War Goes Unnoticed

Last week, 10,000 Turkish commando and special operations troops invaded the Qandil Mountains spanning northern Iraq and northern Syria, No one noticed that a new war had erupted in the Middle East until Tuesday, April 23, when Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan himself drew attention to his third act of aggression against a neighboring country in three months. By then, his army had thrust 30km deep inside Iraq on a mission to root out the bases established there by the Kurdish separatist PKK (Kurdish Workers Party).

The Turkish assault on the Syrian Kurdish province of Afrin in February ended in the eviction of local Kurdish force and a new Syrian refugee crisis. But Erdogan had no intention of stopping his war on the Kurds there. Addressing the ruling Justice and Development Party on April 23 in Ankara, he declared: “We will not get out of Cudi, Gabar, Bestler-Dereler, Tendurek and Qandil [the northeastern mountains of Iraq].”

The Qandil mountains run through Iraqi Kurdistan up to the Iranian border. Some of its peaks are over 3,000m tall. The terrain is extremely rugged and forbidding. The Turkish PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) separatists have spread their bases of operation out across 70sq. km of mountaintops, some of them deep inside caves in the most inaccessible parts of one of the harshest terrains in the Middle East. Of the roughly 25,000 Kurdish inhabitants of these mountains, 7,000 to 9,000 are PKK fighters under arms.

The Turkish army prepared for this daunting operation by setting up bases as springboards. A central command base went up on the lofty, 2,499 m high Balkaya Mountain in southeastern Turkey overlooking the Iraqi border, followed by three new bases in the Kani Rash and Hakurk regions of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkish crews have so far laid 13 km of road for linking the bases.

DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that the Turkish vanguard of armored units, backed by concentrated air strikes and led by attack helicopters, encountered hardly any resistance. That was because Murat Karayilan, the 48-year old commander of the PKK’s armed wing, the People’s Defense Forces, ordered his men to hold their fire, except for harassing the invading force’s rear. He told them to wait for the Turkish column to penetrate deep into the Qandil range and strike only when they reached the most rocky and impassable areas on the mountaintops.

Turkish strategists, most probably aware of the PKK chief’s tactics, will at some point adjust their steps accordingly. Meanwhile, the Turkish president remains in suspense. He can’t tell how long Baghdad will turn a blind eye to his invasion or how the Iraqi government will respond. He must also keep watch on Tehran, who is not likely to put up gladly with a Turkish army turning up on the fringes of the Iranian Zagros mountains, uncomfortably close to its border.

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