On April 18, Turkey launched Operation Claw-Lock, targeting Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in Zap, Metina and Avashin in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). This operation builds on last year’s Operation Claw-Lighting and Operation Claw-Thunderbolt, which targeted the same regions.
Heavy clashes between PKK guerrillas and Turkish soldiers have taken place 10 to 15 kilometers from the Turkish border. Turkey’s pro-government media has suggested that Turkish soldiers could go as far as 50 to 60 kilometers into the territory of the KRI as part of the operation. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that he aims to ‘cleanse the Zap area completely’ and secure Turkey’s borders.
Operation Claw-Lock is an example of ‘business as usual’ for Turkey’s recent approach to the Kurdish question. Following the breakdown of peace talks between the government and the PKK in the summer of 2015, Erdogan abandoned diplomatic approaches to the decades-long conflict in favor of a military solution.
This policy escalated and expanded the conflict internationally, pushing fighting into Iraq and Syria. It also has proven to be a worthwhile investment for Erdogan’s government at home, facilitating his alliance with staunch nationalists in the military and the parliament and enabling the militarization of domestic politics in Turkey. These developments allowed Erdogan to reach a more extensive religious-nationalist electoral base, win back his parliamentary majority in November 2015, and consolidate his authoritarian rule.
In the absence of new ideas and a genuine willingness to address the country’s manifold and complex problems, a military response to the Kurdish question is the tried and tested method Erdogan has used to manipulate domestic politics to his advantage. Cross-border military operations like Claw-Lock are a key element of this strategy.
The escalation of the conflict with the PKK has provided the perfect conditions for Erdogan’s government to intensify its repression of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and destroy its institutional base at local level. The HDP is targeted because it effectively challenged Erdogan’s authoritarianism and emerged as the main barrier to consolidating his ‘One Man Rule’.
Since 2016, Erdogan’s government has jailed thousands of HDP activists and representatives, including members of parliament and mayors. It has also suspended local democracy in Kurdish-majority provinces by replacing elected HDP mayors with appointed ‘trustees’ (kayyum in Turkish) on supposed ‘counter-terrorism’ grounds. Turkey’s Constitutional Court is currently considering a case to permanently close the HDP and ban around 500 of its members from taking part in politics.
“Anti-terror” discourse has become so dominant in Turkish politics that there is little room left for opposition to the government’s anti-democratic practices. As a result, there have been few domestic or international challenges to the repression of the HDP. Opinion polls show that the HDP is maintaining its electoral support, but repression has succeeded in pushing the party and the political ideas it represents to the margins of politics in Turkey.
In addition to its utility in sidelining the HDP, this anti-terror discourse also helps Erdogan shift the focus away from his growing domestic troubles and rally his base. Turkey’s economic crisis is ongoing, and will likely accelerate due to the regional impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is also growing resentment towards Erdogan’s Syria policies, particularly Turkey’s hosting of millions of Syrian refugees. In this context, several opposition parties, including the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), have joined forces against Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led People’s Alliance. Erdogan and his government are banking on anti-terror discourse and the resulting militarization of domestic politics, to win support in the next presidential and parliamentary elections, which are currently scheduled for June 2023.
A combative stance on the Kurdish question had always been popular with a large section of the Turkish electorate. It provides a ready-made narrative that positions Erdogan as the savior of Turkey and as the only leader prepared to challenge international forces that seek to weaken or divide the country.
To the Turkish nationalist audience, nothing exemplifies this plot more than the United States’ ongoing support for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). The presence of the US forces in the AANES and the military aid the US offers to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are used by Erdogan and his government to claim that Turkey’s national security and territorial integrity are threatened not only by the PKK, but also by international powers. Turkey routinely targets the AANES and the SDF with drone attacks, and Erdogan has been threatening the AANES with a new military invasion in recent weeks.
Despite Turkey’s decades-long military alliance with the United States and US support for its anti-PKK operations, many Turkish nationalists are convinced that there is a long-term US plan to create a Kurdish state in the Middle East. They interpret the US presence in Iraq and Syria as part of this plan, and as such as a threat to Turkey’s survival. Erdogan knows military action against the PKK and Syrian Kurds can easily enable him to tap into a conspiratorial narrative that has a strong appeal among millions of voters.
The dominance of anti-terror discourse also functions as a restriction on the opposition Nation Alliance’s political space and prevents it from directly appealing to Kurdish voters, who are expected to play a crucial role in the forthcoming elections. The opposition desperately needs a broad democratic program to challenge Erdogan’s religious-nationalist hegemony over Turkish politics. HDP voters’ support for the opposition’s mayoral candidates in the 2019 local elections was crucial for their success.
The government has used this cooperation to popularize a narrative that the Nation Alliance, particularly the Republican People’s Party (CHP), favors soft policies to manage the Kurdish question and has direct links to the PKK. Associating the opposition bloc with terrorism offers an extra layer of protection for Erdogan’s government by insulating its voters against the opposition’s political messages, which center on Turkey’s economic decline and the deterioration of living conditions for the majority of Turks in recent years.
It serves an additional purpose of distancing the Nation Alliance from Kurdish voters. Erdogan hopes that the Nation Alliance, seeking to dismiss or refute terror accusations, will refrain from appealing to Kurdish voters directly by incorporating Kurdish political demands into a broad democratization program. This would leave Kurdish voters with a choice between two hostile camps. The government would prefer these voters to stay neutral rather than vote for the opposition.
Once Erdogan succeeds in restricting the opposition’s political space, he will be free to appeal to his conservative Kurdish constituents and claim his government’s struggle is against the Kurdish movement’s extremism, rather than the Kurds as a group. Erdogan’s close ties with the KRI leadership offer a valuable tool to disguise the anti-Kurdish features of his religious-nationalist politics and military interventions. KRI leaders have justified Turkish military operations on their territory, visited Turkey during important elections and even appeared on the Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s political platforms.
These occasions provided perfect opportunities for Erdogan’s AKP to present itself as sympathetic to Kurdish interests. They even included symbolic, if essentially empty, gestures, such as the hoisting of the KRI flag in Istanbul Airport during KRI President Massoud Barzani’s February 2017 visit, just a few weeks before the referendum on Turkey’s executive presidency.
Erdogan needs a victory against the PKK to reverse his falling support, and so Turkey’s military actions will likely intensify in the coming months. As previous operations have proven, the region’s mountainous terrain makes it difficult for the Turkish military to make swift progress. The opposition seems able to hold its ground domestically and is determined to make the economy, not foreign policy, the central focus of its election strategy.
If Erdogan’s expectations do not materialize with the current operation or if he needs a more impactful action to revitalize his religious-nationalist support base, further repression of the HDP or expanding the operation in Iraq to target Syrian Kurdish forces could be on the cards, despite the danger it presents for the long-term wellbeing of Turkey’s democracy and political pluralism.