Turkish President Erdogan is fighting the PKK to improve his election chances

May 13, Turkey pulled the brake about Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bid, about Helsinki and Stockholm’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed rebel group classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Since the 1980s, the conflict between Turkey and the PKK over greater autonomy for Turkish Kurds has claimed thousands of lives and prompted the latter to develop a network of offshoots in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Although Ankara has already done so his position softened over NATO expansion – perhaps the latest chapter in their balancing act between traditional Western allies and President Vladimir Putin’s Russia – clashes with the Kurdish armed movement along Turkey’s southern border have recently intensified.

Confrontations between Turkey and the PKK on this front have traditionally been justified by the Turkish government’s anti-terror narrative that the removal of any PKK presence along the country’s southern border is essential to Turkish security.

What is different this time is that Turkey’s military interventions in northern Syria and Iraq, as well as its magnanimity to Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership, may have profound domestic political implications. As Turkey weathered one of the worst economic crises in two decades and faced waves of anti-refugee sentiment, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan anticipates difficult parliamentary elections to be held in June 2023. The Turkish president is using armed movements in conflicts with the Kurds to improve his image at home and find new sources of investment, foreign exchange and energy that can help him win re-election.

May 13, Turkey pulled the brake about Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bid, about Helsinki and Stockholm’s ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed rebel group classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Since the 1980s, the conflict between Turkey and the PKK over greater autonomy for Turkish Kurds has claimed thousands of lives and prompted the latter to develop a network of offshoots in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Although Ankara has already done so his position softened over NATO expansion – perhaps the latest chapter in their balancing act between traditional Western allies and President Vladimir Putin’s Russia – clashes with the Kurdish armed movement along Turkey’s southern border have recently intensified.

Confrontations between Turkey and the PKK on this front have traditionally been justified by the Turkish government’s anti-terror narrative that the removal of any PKK presence along the country’s southern border is essential to Turkish security.

What is different this time is that Turkey’s military interventions in northern Syria and Iraq, as well as its magnanimity to Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership, may have profound domestic political implications. As Turkey weathered one of the worst economic crises in two decades and faced waves of anti-refugee sentiment, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan anticipates difficult parliamentary elections to be held in June 2023. The Turkish president is using armed movements in conflicts with the Kurds to improve his image at home and find new sources of investment, foreign exchange and energy that can help him win re-election.


On the Iraqi front, Turkey has strengthened its alliance with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which controls northern Iraq, by negotiating a new energy deal. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, these energy ties have become even more important. Turkey is trying to diversify its energy portfolio In different directions, the recent discovery of large, undeveloped natural gas reserves east and south of Kirkuk, Iraq is just another reminder for Ankara that the KRG is an important strategic partner.

On April 18, Turkish forces launched a military offensive in northern Iraq, code-named claw lock. This operation targets PKK forces operating in tunnels, caves and bunkers in the area between Metina and Zap in the Kandil Mountains in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. The PKK has used northern Iraq as a base to attack Turkey for decades.

Although the peshmerga (the Kurdish branch of the Iraqi military) denied The KRG’s ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), collaborated with the Turkish military in this offensive and did not condemn the operation. In fact, Operation Claw-Lock preceded it high-level contacts between Turkey and the KRG, who share the common goal of reducing the role of the PKK in northern Iraq – and who also a lucrative business for exporting oil from Kirkuk and Erbil in Iraq to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in 2014.

However, despite Turkey’s continued interest in the prospect, exporting Kurdish gas to Turkey and then to Europe faces many obstacles: rivalries and infighting within the Kurdish camp, the tentative timeline for ramping up production on the Kurdish side, and the ambivalent Relationship between Ankara and Baghdad.

This last point is crucial: for the energy deal to work, all parties involved must work together, which will not be easy because the Iraqi government has done it denied the legitimacy of the energy agreements between Ankara and Erbil. Turkey has already reached out to the United States to smooth things over with the Iraqi government, and other developments point to possible direct cooperation between the two capitals. Shortly after Operation Claw-Lock began, the Iraqi government stationed troops in the Sinjar district on the Iraq-Syria border. Baghdad has refused to coordinate its intervention with Turkey, but shares Ankara’s goals in Sinjar: both parties want to limit the role of various militias operating in the region that have ties to Iran.

In this scenario, another factor that could bring Ankara and Baghdad together is their tumultuous relationship with Tehran. The withdrawal of the militia from Sinjar and the conclusion of a new energy agreement would limit Iran’s access to Syria and diminish its role as a regional energy supplier.


Syria is another region where tensions between Turkey and the PKK have recently flared up peppered.

Since 2016, Turkey has directly or indirectly controlled large parts of the country Syrian territory along the Syrian-Turkish border. The remaining border areas are administered by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group aiming to create a secular, autonomous government in north-eastern Syria and dominated by a Syrian-Kurdish militia. Turkey regards this militia as one and the same with the PKK: in recent years, disagreements over support for the Syrian Kurds have been one of the main points of contention between Ankara and Washington.

Since the start of Operation Claw-Lock in northern Iraq, Ankara has increased and repeated the intensity of its attacks on Kurdish militia targets in northern Syria drone attacks and killing of several members. But pushing Kurdish forces and citizens off the border isn’t the only factor driving Turkey’s presence in northern Syria: Ankara has done it de facto states in the areas it controls, to which it could relocate Syrian refugees of Sunni Muslim origin currently living in Turkey.

host Turkey 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees alongside nearly 2 million other foreigners. In recent months, episodes of racism have become increasingly common, including a violent riot against a Syrian community in Ankara last summer, with anti-refugee sentiment exacerbated by the country’s economic crisis. Many Turks perceive Syrians stealing their jobs and gaining world-class access to health care and education.

The refugee issue has been at the center of political debate in Turkey for almost a decade, but the opposition has taken advantage of public opinion in recent weeks to hit the issue harder than usual. A 9-minute dystopian mockumentary titled “silent invasion‘, showing Syrian-dominated Turkey in 2043, was hugely popular, racking up more than 4.5 million YouTube views in less than a month and helping to push the migration debate as a question of ‘national survival.” A new far-right anti-refugee party has launched surfacedand the rest of the opposition have again pledged that if elected they would send all refugees back to Syria 2 years.

In response to this pressure, Erdogan sharpened his rhetoric about refugees. On May 3rd in a video message On the occasion of the opening of a briquette house warehouse in the Syrian district of Idlib, the Turkish President announced that the government is working on a “new project that will allow for the voluntary return of 1 million [Syrians]’ in security zones controlled by Turkey in northern Syria.

As the debate on voluntary moves Turkey is also working to achieve another important strategic goal. If Sunni Muslims are resettled in northern Syria, the Kurdish population living there will be diluted. That is the hope in Ankara demographic transformation will prevent the emergence of a Syrian-Kurdish proto-state and thus guarantee Turkey’s security in the long term.

If military operations in northern Iraq and Syria are successful, Erdogan will not only have created a PKK-free strip of land along his southern border. He will also have cemented Turkey’s energy cooperation with the Iraqi Kurds and provided a solution to the refugee issue that he can capitalize on with voters. At a time of economic hardship and in the face of the most difficult re-election campaign of his political career, these steps will improve Erdogan’s election chances.

Comments are closed.