In mid-June Turkey launched yet another large-scale air and ground operation in northern Iraq aimed at crippling the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Turkish planes bombed the Makhmur refugee camp, home to 12,000 Kurds from Turkey. The camp near Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government, is a stronghold of support for the PKK. Also bombed was Shengal (Sinjar), home of the much-persecuted Yazedi Kurds. Following the devastating Islamic State attack on Shengal in August 2014, the PKK played a key role in helping to establish the Yazedi self-defence forces.
Turkish planes also hit targets across the rugged PKK-controlled border region between Iraq, Turkey and Iran (the Medya Defence Zones). Following these attacks Turkey has ramped up its efforts, which began last year, to establish bases in the Heftanin region.
What Turkey wants
In a radio interview nine days after the invasion had begun, Rizgar Ersi, a PKK military leader, explained Turkey's objective:
It is trying to occupy a strip of land that is about 30 to 40 kilometres wide. If it succeeds in this, the attack will continue on a line from Qandil to Shengal and an occupation corridor will be built. If the Turkish state occupies 30 or 40 kilometres of the mountainous area, only the small plain between Zakho and Sulaymaniyah will remain for the population of Southern Kurdistan. The attacks on Shengal, Maxmur and the Medya Defence Zones show that this process has started.
Ersi went on to describe the battles around Heftanin:
First, the Turkish military bombarded the region for days with heavy weapons, tanks and howitzers. Then the Turkish jets dropped 1000kg bombs on the area for hours. Then Cobra helicopters and reconnaissance aircraft advanced; attempts were made to launch a ground operation. The guerrillas' tactic was not to allow Turkey to get a foot on the ground in the region. From the first moment, the attacks on the army began.
The soldiers were severely hit by the guerrillas and had to retreat. That is the reality of Heftanin. Afterwards, they launched a second wave of attacks with even more massive use of the most modern war equipment but they only managed to get deployed on a hill. In the past nine days, five or six hills have been occupied. Before that, they had been completely deformed by the bombing.
The guerrillas carried out 20 actions in eight days. Cobra helicopters were attacked 15 times, many of them were damaged and had to withdraw from the war zone. There were dozens of sabotage actions. More than 70 Turkish soldiers were killed and dozens were injured. In these eight days, five of our friends have died in the sacrificial struggle. This is the situation.
He added that the guerrillas are very well trained, highly motivated and determined, and fighting in their own land.
The Turkish onslaught has had a severe impact on civilian life in the area. According to a June 27 Rudaw report, villages in the border town of Zakho 'have been emptied and placed under lockdown due to recent Turkish airstrikes ... according to local officials, 361 villages in Duhok province have been completely emptied due to airstrikes over the past 20 years.'
KDP collaborates with Turkey
The northern border regions are nominally under the control of the KRG, whose dominant element is the Kurdish Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani. The KRG is a neocolonial regime, politically and economically subservient to Turkey and the United States.
Over the past two years, as Turkey has expanded its network of bases and outposts in the border region, the KRG has done nothing.
In early June, shortly before the invasion, Hakan Fidan, chief of Turkey's MIT intelligence agency, made a secret visit to Baghdad. It is hard to believe he didn't brief Iraqi and KRG officials about the imminent invasion and secure their agreement.
Long history of operations in Iraq
Turkey's first anti-PKK incursion into Iraq took place in 1992. The current "Operation Claw" is the latest of many such efforts since then. Despite Turkey's huge superiority in weapons and numbers and the death and destruction caused, all the previous attacks were repulsed by the PKK and significant losses inflicted on the invaders. They all failed in their objective of smashing the PKK.
Drones, surveillance and informers
This time around Turkey is pinning much of its hopes on the heavy use of drones, high-tech surveillance and informers.
In the last few years Turkey has carried out a number of assassinations of PKK leaders using these means. In August 2018 PKK leader Ismail Özden (Mam Zeki Sengali) was killed near Shengal by a missile strike and in October last year two PKK leaders were killed by a drone strike near Sulaymaniyah.
Turkey's home-grown drone capability is much lauded in the country's pro-government media and right-wing nationalist circles. And there is no doubt that the widespread use of drones, with their advanced attack and surveillance capabilities, has created serious problems for the Kurdish guerrillas but there are always countermoves and the PKK has adapted its tactics accordingly.
Turkey implacably opposed to Kurdish rights
Looking at the history of the Turkish republic since its founding in 1923, implacable opposition to basic Kurdish rights is the central feature, the fixed element. Although it once courted the Kurdish vote and began peace talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, the current authoritarian regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is engaged in a war on any manifestation of Kurdish autonomy and democracy — whether it be in Turkey, Syria or northern Iraq.
Turkey attacks Kurds everywhere
In early 2018 Turkey invaded northern Syria and occupied Afrin, the geographically isolated western canton of Rojava. Using an army largely made up of jihadist gangs it has carried out massive ethnic cleansing, forcing out hundreds of thousands of Kurds and terrorising and brutalising those that remain. Afrin today is a dangerous, lawless place. In the years before the Turkish invasion it was the most peaceful part of Syria.
Last year Turkey invaded Rojava again and occupied a strip of land between Tel Abyad and Serekaniye and is constantly trying to expand it. The results have followed the dismal pattern of Afrin.
And in Turkey itself the Erdogan regime has kept up its war on the Kurds. The left-wing Kurdish-based Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), while not yet illegal, is under constant attack. Scores of elected HDP mayors have been sacked and replaced by government administrators, thousands of party members are in jail, and on June 4 two HDP MPs were illegally removed from office and jailed. In June, two HDP six-day marches protesting this state of affairs were repeatedly attacked by security forces.
The big Western powers are complicit in the Turkish regime's war on the Kurds at home and abroad.
It is important to be clear that the West is fundamentally opposed to the Kurdish freedom struggle with its radical leadership and its highly progressive agenda of democracy, feminism, ecology, and religious and ethnic pluralism. The West has no problem with the rotten Barzani leadership of the KDP but organisations like the PKK are something else.
That's why the Western powers (including Australia) have accommodated the Turkish regime by listing the PKK as a terrorist organisation when it is so clearly a legitimate national liberation movement fighting for self-government and democracy.
The European Union annually gives large financial grants to Turkey so that the huge army of Syrian refugees (some 3.5 million of them) is kept away from Fortress Europe.
For decades Turkey has been armed by the West. The Turkish army is equipped with hundreds of German Leopard tanks and these were used in the two invasions of Rojava.
One possible looming source of conflict with the West is Turkey's big (and so far successful) military intervention in Libya in support of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. The GNA and Turkey have signed an agreement giving Turkey oil exploration rights over a big slice of the Mediterranean between the two countries. This agreement has been fiercely opposed by Greece, Cyprus and the EU.
Erdogan under pressure
Under Erdogan's rule Turkey has a very aggressive foreign policy with the army conducting operations in Iraq, Syria and Libya. At home it crushes all dissent and keeps its Kurdish population in a tight Turkish chauvinist grip.
But there are growing signs that trouble is looming for the regime. The economy is in a bad way and social distress is growing. Nationalist hype won't put food on the tables of the millions struggling to survive.
Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has recently suffered some small splits, although they are all on the right and share the AKP's Kurdophobic outlook.
Despite the repression the Kurdish movement is not broken. And there are clear signs that 'Operation Claw' could well turn out badly for Erdogan. The heroic Kurdish resistance in Heftanin is making a big contribution to the ultimate demise of the regime.