Turkey Widens Iraq Battle as Erdogan Seeks Nationalist Vote

(Bloomberg) -- Turkey expanded its offensive against Kurdish militants further inside Iraq, raising the specter of a broader conflagration as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeks support from nationalist voters ahead of this month’s elections.

The widening of the battle complicates matters for Ankara’s western security partners by adding to an already complex situation in Iraq, which is struggling to form a new government, and in Syria, where powers are vying for influence as the civil war there nears its end. North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had urged Ankara and Baghdad to work together.

“Mount Qandil, Sinjar, we’ve started operations there,” Erdogan said at a campaign rally in the central Anatolian city of Nigde. “We destroyed 14 important locations,” he said, vowing that the airstrikes “will continue”s to “dry up the biggest swamp,” Mount Qandil.

Turkish forces entered northern Iraq in March to confront fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, who have bases there. The group has been battling for decades to secure an autonomous Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey, with the conflict reigniting in 2015. Turkish military jets have in recent weeks pounded PKK positions near Mount Qandil, along Iraq’s border with Iran.

The offensive is sure to be received positively among supporters of the MHP, a nationalist party whose leaders have allied with Erdogan’s ruling AKP, in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the MHP, has called on the government to “destroy and burn down Qandil and all other terrorist hideouts.”

Kurdish Breakthrough

The votes will cap Turkey’s transition to a powerful executive presidency, and Erdogan wants to ensure his own first-round victory as well as a legislative majority for his party. He has already showered Turks with government largesse ahead of voting, with promised tax breaks and cheaper mortgages.

Opinion polls suggest Erdogan is favorite to win the presidency in a run-off vote. But he could be denied control of parliament if the pro-Kurdish HDP wins more than 10 percent of the national vote and gets seats. It did just that in 2015.

The president reacted to the Kurds’ performance then by accusing the HDP of having ties to the banned PKK, and the party’s leader is in jail facing terrorism-related charges.

Mahir Unal, a spokesman for Erdogan’s party, downplayed the chances of the HDP repeating its electoral achievement. But in a race for every vote, AKP officials are keen to stress that their problem is with the militants not the Kurdish population as a whole.

Turkey’s army this year also pushed Kurdish militants from key strongholds in Syria, accusing them of having links to the PKK.

At an election rally in the southeastern city of Mus on June 8, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkish troops were 30 kilometers (18 miles) inside Iraq. “This is a serious step toward eradicating the PKK in the field,” he said.

Dealing the PKK a knockout blow in Iraq won’t be easy, said Nihat Ali Ozcan, an analyst at the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.

“A successful military operation against Qandil would require the cooperation of Iran in the east and Baghdad to the south,” according to Ozcan. Turkey is likely to face growing “international concerns over its growing military involvement in the region.”

“But for now, Erdogan seems to be seeking to consolidate the nationalists that make up 8-10 percent of voters, and force Kurdish militants into defensive positions in Iraq and Syria,” he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.