Turkey in Review: January 19 – February 7, 2022
Turkey in Review: January 19 – February 7, 2022
Turkey Deploys Sustained and Coordinated Strikes against Kurdish Forces in Iraq and Syria
Ezgi Yazici and Fatih Cungurlu
Key Takeaway: Turkey conducted its first simultaneous multi-theater counterterrorism operation against the PKK in Iraq and its Syrian offshoot, the YPG, on February 2, 2022. The simultaneity of this operation is the most recent demonstration of Turkey’s fundamental shift in northern Syria and Iraq from full-scale ground incursions to a strategy of sustained counterterrorism pressure. Turkey’s ability to maintain a high tempo against the PKK and the YPG outside major incursions and its emphasis on airpower—including drone strikes—allow Ankara to circumvent the international political costs of its past capture-and-hold campaigns in Syria. Separately, Turkey is approaching Baghdad for counterterrorism and defense cooperation against the PKK. Turkey’s two-pronged diplomatic and military strategy may precipitate new PKK and Iranian proxy attacks to disrupt or retaliate against the Turkish military presence in both Syria and Iraq.
Turkey’s first-ever simultaneous cross-theater air campaign is a product of its combined counterterrorism approach to Syria and Iraq. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) conducted its first simultaneous air campaign in Syria and Iraq against People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions on February 2. Turkish airstrikes hit YPG and PKK positions as well as some civilian areas in Malikiyah in Syria’s Hasaka Governorate and Iraq’s Sinjar District and Makhmur Refugee Camp on February 2. The TSK used at least 60 aircraft, including armed drones and F-16 fighter jets in the campaign dubbed “Winter Claw.” Turkey’s coordinated campaign across Iraqi and Syrian positions reflects its longstanding treatment of northern Syria and northern Iraq as two halves of a single counterterrorism theater.
Turkey and Turkish-backed forces are fighting across a wider frontline with the YPG in Syria. After the Turkish airstrikes, Turkey and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) initiated clashes with the YPG on February 2 onwards in at least eight different towns, including Tel Rifat, Aleppo Governorate; Tel Tamr, Ain Diwar Village, Tel Abu Rasin, and Darbasiyah in Hasaka Governorate; and Tel Abyad and Ain Issa, Raqqa Governorate. The TSK did not attribute the ground fighting to Operation Winter Claw. However, the TSK likely timed these simultaneous ground and air campaigns to reinforce each other in pressuring the Kurdish YPG and PKK groups. Turkey and Turkish-backed Syrian forces have expanded the area in which they have launched or had planned to launch simultaneous attacks against the YPG forces, overstretching the YPG.
Ankara is successfully keeping its high-tempo military activities below the “incursion threshold” to minimize domestic and international political costs. Turkey is now able to maintain a continuous pace of targeted drone strikes against top PKK commanders, almost-daily clashes with the YPG in Syria, and tight aerial surveillance over the PKK in northern Iraq—all without declaring a new cross-border campaign. This strategy of sustained pressure is a major shift from Turkey’s past incursion approach in Syria or Iraq, which was confined to conventional, deadline-driven ground campaigns with political, resource, and weather restrictions. Introduced in late 2020, the new approach aims to disrupt command structures and paralyze PKK and affiliate groups’ movements between Syria, Iraq, and Turkey without depending on incursions. Its counterterrorism emphasis also circumvents the international diplomatic costs that plagued Turkey’s past cross-border incursions. Most recently, Ankara received significant pressure from the United States and Russia against a potential new cross-border incursion in October 2021.
Turkey’s emphasis on drones and surveillance technologies has allowed Ankara to impose sustained pressure on areas with YPG and PKK presence. The wide geographic range of the TSK’s targets on February 2-3 reflects Turkey’s growing ability to sustain simultaneous or consecutive campaigns on multiple fronts across countries. Turkey’s investments in domestic defense production have been critical in developing this capability. Its emphasis on airpower (manned and unmanned) played a key role in evolving previously seasonal anti-PKK campaigns into the continuous ones Turkey maintains today. Turkey has used drones for surveillance and targeted attacks in its push to paralyze PKK supply lines and kill PKK leadership. This strategy has proved successful in cutting off PKK’s access to Iraq, minimizing casualties inside Turkey, and confining fatalities to northern Iraq, as well.
Turkey’s sustained high-tempo military activity is drawing frequent retaliations from Kurdish groups and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias. On February 2-3, Syrian Kurdish YPG forces conducted a cross-border rocket attack against a TSK border command post, killing a Turkish soldier in Cizre, Sirnak Province, Turkey. YPG forces also targeted a civilian center in al-Bab, Aleppo Governorate, Syria with a rocket attack on February 2, killing nine. These attacks are consistent with the likely YPG effort to disrupt and counter Turkish stabilization efforts in Turkish-controlled Syria. Iranian proxies in Iraq have also increasingly criticized Turkish airstrikes and military presence in Iraq in recent months. Most significantly, a new, likely Iran-backed Sinjar-based group “Ahrar Sinjar” fired at least 18 rockets at a TSK base in Bashiqa, Ninewa Province, Iraq, on February 3. Prior to February 3, likely Iranian proxies targeted the TSK base in Bashiqa on December 27, January 2, January 15, and January 26.  Ahrar Sinjar claims to be comprised of Yezidi fighters from Sinjar—where the PKK has substantial presence and influence within Kurdish and Yezidi communities. Ahrar Sinjar’s alleged ability to launch rockets from Iranian proxy-controlled areas far from Sinjar indicates growing coordination between Iraq-based Iranian proxy militant groups and the PKK.
Ankara couples its military campaigns against the PKK with political and defense outreach—particularly in Iraq. Turkish officials, from President Erdogan to Turkey’s Ambassador to Iraq, have focused on cultivating ties with key Iraqi Sunni officials since October 2021—likely to build a pro-Turkey Iraqi Sunni political alliance with which Ankara’s Iraqi Kurdish and Turkmen partners could align. Turkey likely perceives military and political support from the Iraqi Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government as necessary to remove the PKK from parts of northern Iraq. Turkey even offered drone sales to Baghdad and military exercises with the Iraqi government to incentivize greater defense cooperation, though no agreements have been signed yet. However, Turkey’s political interference in Iraq is likely a key motivator for the Iran-backed attacks against the Turkish base in Bashiqa.
Turkish officials likely view the transformation of Ankara’s counterterrorism approach in Syria and Iraq as a successful strategy. The TSK will likely continue forcing the Syrian Kurdish group to overstretch across a wide frontline. Turkey’s sustained campaign of surveillance and drone strikes is increasingly capable of cutting the PKK’s access from Iraq to Turkey and disrupting its Syria-Iraq networks.
However, Ankara’s new strategy comes with costs and risks. Turkey’s sustained bombing campaign is destabilizing Kurdish-populated zones in both Syria and Iraq. Ankara’s approach may also precipitate transnational responses from Iranian proxy or PKK-aligned groups against TSK positions in Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s strategy relies heavily on the sustained use of its F-16 fleet. While not an immediate problem, that fleet is rapidly aging. If Ankara wants to sustain an airpower-heavy strategy, it will need to secure replacements or upgrades for its fighters. Turkey was expelled from the F-35 fighter program in 2019 and has been lobbying the United States for re-inclusion or other access to fighter technology.
- January 21: Iran halts natural gas exports to Turkey, amplifying energy shortages and high prices in Syria and Turkey. Iran halted gas exports to Turkey for ten days, citing technical problems, on January 21. The Turkish government imposed power cuts on industrial users and manufacturers for at least three days on January 24. Iran provides 10 percent of Turkey’s natural gas, and its ten-day cut put significant strain on Turkish manufacturers and the government alike. Energy prices have skyrocketed in Turkey in recent months due to the weakening Turkish lira. A Turkish delegation traveling to Iran claimed Iran halted natural gas exports to Turkey due to increased Iranian domestic energy use, not a technical failure, on January 26. Azerbaijan agreed to increase its natural gas supply to Turkey through February to compensate for Iran’s supply suspension. Iran’s export halt exacerbated anxieties over rising energy prices in Turkey; electricity and natural gas bills for households in Turkey have doubled since December 2021. Turkish citizens organized local protests in several provinces. In Syria, demonstrators broke into a Turkish electricity company to protest price hikes in Turkish-controlled Syria. Turkish President Erdogan announced a limited adjustment to electricity bills to alleviate public pressure on February 1. In Turkey, the energy shortage and production disruptions could threaten Erdogan’s efforts to put exports at the center of his economic model. Growing displeasure about price hikes and power cuts also undermines Turkey’s bid to stabilize and govern Turkish-controlled Syria. Turkey may further reduce electricity supplies to northern Syria to alleviate domestic shortages. Iran restarted limited exports on January 31.
- February 3: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine, to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Erdogan and Zelensky discussed Russia-Ukraine tensions as part of Turkey’s bid to mediate the crisis while establishing its firm support for Ukraine. Erdogan and Zelensky signed a free trade agreement between Turkey and Ukraine to boost bilateral trade from $7 billion to $10 billion over the next five years. Erdogan and Zelensky also agreed to produce Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 combat drones in Ukraine, use Ukrainian Motor Sich engines in the next generation Bayraktar drones, and establish a Bayraktar TB-2 training center in Ukraine. Russia previously criticized Ukraine for using Turkish drones to escalate fighting in the Donbas region. Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Turkey’s fragile mediation efforts are likely out of necessity to maintain its position as a state with significant dependencies on NATO and Russia alike. However, Erdogan is also aiming to leverage the escalations to establish Turkey as a dependable partner and to solidify long-term Turkish-Ukrainian defense ties.
- February 1: Turkish President Erdogan hosted a Lebanese delegation led by Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Ankara, Turkey. Prime Minister Mikati’s delegation met with Turkish officials on February 1. Mikati and Erdogan discussed a wide range of subjects, including trade and tourism cooperation, Turkish aid to Lebanon, and energy investments, during a one-on-one meeting. Erdogan offered Turkish companies’ support for Lebanese infrastructure projects, particularly for reconstructing the Beirut Port. Erdogan also indicated Turkey would support Lebanon’s government reform efforts. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu met with Lebanese Economy and Trade Minister Amin Salam on February 1, after which Turkey removed its ban on scrap metal imports from Lebanon—an estimated $100 million export income to Beirut. Turkey’s outreach to Lebanon is likely connected to Ankara’s desire to expand energy cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey also likely seeks to establish itself as a main supporter of Lebanon in the latter’s attempt to recover from economic collapse.
- January 27: Turkey and Qatar continued negotiations with the Taliban to run the Kabul International Airport alongside other Turkish outreach in Afghanistan. Turkish, Qatari, and Taliban delegations met in Doha, Qatar, on January 27 to discuss the Turkish-Qatari proposal to operate and secure the Kabul Airport. The delegations agreed on “key issues” on how to manage and operate the airport, according to the Qatari Foreign Ministry readout. The Taliban asked for Turkey’s support to operate the Kabul Airport in September 2021, but the discussions paused after Turkey sought to bring in its personnel for airport security. Separately, the Turkish ambassador to Afghanistan, Cihad Erginay, met with key Afghan officials, including Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Salam Hanafi and former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Turkey continues its humanitarian aid and infrastructure projects as part of its bid to maintain its unique stabilizer and gateway position between the Taliban and the rest of the world 
- January 30: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Bahrain as part of Turkey’s Gulf outreach. Cavusoglu's visit marks the first high-level Turkish delegation visit to Bahrain since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit in February 2017. Cavusoglu met with Bahraini Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani in Manama, Bahrain, on January 31. Cavusoglu underlined that Turkey aims to increase its cooperation with Bahrain in the health and defense industries. Cavusoglu's visit is likely part of Turkey's efforts to mend ties with the Persian Gulf countries by offering defense cooperation deals while seeking cash injections to recover its economy. Erdogan is scheduled to visit the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in February for the first time since the Gulf diplomatic crisis in 2017.
Contributors: Kevin Chen, Krista Schaefer
Tal Abyad and Ain Isa:
 In October 2021, Turkish Armed Forces deployed troops and equipment toward the border in preparation for a possible Turkish incursion. The preparation never materialized to an actual military campaign, however the deployments also indicated an expansion of the area that Turkish and Turkish-backed forces were planning to target the YPG from.
 Turkey also killed senior YBS leaders with drone strikes in Sinjar August and December 2021. Shingal Resistance Units (YBS) was formed of local Yazidi fighters in 2014 to fight ISIS. Turkey considers the YBS to be an offshoot of the PKK
 No group has claimed the attacks, however ISW assesses that Iran-backed Iraqi proxies might have conducted most if not all of the attacks due to the immediate proxy criticism of Turkish military presence in Iraq after each attack.
JAN 15: “In the Second Attack of its Kind a Missile Attacks Targets the Zlikan Base,” Shafaq, January 15, 2022. shafaq dot com/ar/%D8%A3%D9%85%D9%80%D9%86/%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%AB%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%87%D8%AC%D9%88%D9%85-%D9%85%D9%86-%D9%86%D9%88%D8%B9%D9%87-%D9%82%D8%B5%D9%81-%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AE%D9%8A-%D9%8A%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%87%D8%AF%D9%81-%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D8%B2%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%83%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%AF; “At least 3 missiles targeted the Turkish Zlikan base in Bashiqa, Mosul Governorate,” Sabereen News Telegram, January 15, 2022. t dot me/sabreenS1/39133
“A Second Burst of 4 Missiles Target the Turkish Base Responding to the Artillery of the Turkish Occupation,” Sabereen News Telegram, January 16, 2022. t dot me/sabreenS1/39135
JAN 26: https://t.me/sabreenS1/38077
 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan summoned Iraqi Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi and US-sanctioned businessman Khamis al-Khanjar, the leaders of Iraq’s two largest Sunni blocs, to Ankara in October and reportedly encouraged them to form a unified Sunni political alliance. They formed that alliance in January and aligned with Iraqi nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the Turkey-backed Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to attempt to form an Iraqi government with limited Iranian influence. The Sadr-led coalition is attempting to reinstate current Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is close to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey and has written extensively about the importance of counterbalancing Iranian influence in Iraq with Gulf state relations.
 2021-12-03 RUMINT The Iraqi government approves a $100 million budget to buy Turkish Bayraktar TB2 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) on December 2. https://www.defenceturk.net/irak-tan-bayraktar-tb2-siha-alimi-icin-100-m...
2021-12-01: Turkish Chief of the General Staff Yasar Guler and Iraqi Chief of the General Staff Abdul-Amir Rashid Yarallah discuss recent developments, potential Turkish-Iraqi military exercises over the phone on December 1. https://twitter.com/TSKGnkur/status/1466034776792514569 ) https://twitter.com/IraqiSpoxMOD/status/1466098896208375822?s=20&t=6vL84...
 Tasnim News Agency https://tn.ai/2648222
 31 JAN: Hundreds of Turkish protesters demonstrate against electricity price hikes in Bodrum, Mugla Province and Rize Province, Turkey. (https://twitter.com/gercekgundem/status/1488117714606510082?s=20&t=nJbLI..., https://twitter.com/724_bodrum/status/1488180464871514112, DNGTS https://www.turkishminute.com/2022/01/31/high-energy-bills-in-turkey-spa...)
 https://www.syriahr.com/en/237166/, https://twitter.com/ali_avissta/status/1488593010610876418, https://twitter.com/waledALedlbe/status/1488467777816076289 The protesters burned tires outside the building and removed the Turkish flag from the Turkish electricity company’s offices. The company, AK Enerji, announced reducing electricity supplies to 12 hours a day, prompting protests, according to local sources. Civilians held similar protests against AK Enerji in al-Bab on January 4 due to harsh winter weather and rising electricity prices.
 27 JAN: Representatives from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and an Erdogan-ally Turkish company Calik Holding sign an agreement to support Afghanistan’s electrical infrastructure IVO Kabul, Afghanistan. https://twitter.com/DABS_Official/status/1486699499657609216
27 JAN: Turkish disaster relief agency AFAD sent 748 tons of humanitarian aid materials to Afghanistan over train on January 27. (DNGTS: http://dailysabah.com/politics/diplomacy/turkish-kindness-train-departs-...)