Friday, 30 April 2021

Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt: Turkey Engages PKK In Iraq

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans in collaboration with COIN_V2 
In a renewed effort to flush out PKK fighters from their mountain hideouts close to the border with Turkey in Northern Iraq, the Turkish Armed Forces launched Operation Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt on Friday the 23rd of April 2021 with the ultimate goal of clearing three designated areas of the presence of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Conducted under difficult operational conditions in mountainous terrain riddled with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the operations have so far resulted in the reported deaths of 116 PKK fighters along with the destruction of several cave systems and the capture of enemy weaponry. [1]

The PKK, which is designated a terrorist organisation by the EU, the UK, the United States and Turkey among other nations, has resorted to using bases across Turkey's Southern border to shelter and plan new attacks on targets in Turkey ever since it was largely expelled from Turkish territory in 2017-2018. While their expulsion meant the end of (notable) PKK territorial presence in Turkey, armed attacks in Turkey continue to be carried out to this day. As recently as October 2020, two PKK fighters were involved in a deadly shootout with police forces in Iskenderun, Hatay, with one of them ultimately detonating his suicide vest, injuring one police officer and two civilians. 

The Turkish Army operations are carried out in the Metina (Claw-Lightning) and Avaşin-Basyan (Claw-Thunderbolt) regions in territory nominally under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). These actions are the second major external operations conducted by Turkey in Northern Iraq this year. Earlier, from June till September 2020, Turkey launched Operations Claw-Eagle and Tiger against PKK targets, resulting in dozens of PKK fighters killed and large quantities of armament – even including Russian 9M133 Kornet ATGMs and U.S. M136 AT4 anti-tank weapons – captured. [2]
These operations were followed by Operation Claw-Eagle 2 in February 2021, which resulted in the killing of 48 PKK fighters but also the execution of 13 Turkish hostages and kidnapping victims held by the PKK shortly before Turkish forces could rescue them. [3] Some had been held by the PKK for as long as six years; all were executed with a bullet to the back of the head. [4] A notable occurrence during Claw-Eagle 2 was the targeting of three PKK fighters that were in the process of escaping the area by paramotor by a MAM-L munition launched from a Bayraktar TB2 UCAV.

The current area of operations and respective areas of control in Northern Iraq. Green = Turkey, Red = KRG and Orange = PKK. Live map by Anatolia Intel.

The Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt operations commenced with artillery and air strikes on known PKK positions in the three designated operational areas. Subsequently, Turkish forces were inserted into the region by helicopters while supported by F-4E 2020 Terminators and F-16s armed with laser-guided munitions, T129 ATAK attack helicopters, UAVs, 107mm and 122mm MRLs as well as 155mm M52T, 155mm T-155 Fırtına and 203mm M110 SPGs. [5] Nearly 400 targets including caves were engaged with artillery, and another 60 targets were hit by air strikes. In one such sortie, a cave system with three PKK fighters reportedly still inside was struck by a precision guided munition and destroyed.

During their advance, Turkish forces quickly discovered several more cave systems used by the PKK, each just large enough to house several fighters along with their weapons and belongings. [6] [7] [8] On the 29th of April, Turkish forces were in full control of the Zinnar and Balula mountains, the most dominant points in the Metina region and the MamReşo/Keri mountain (a strategic point in the Basyan area). [9] [10] Both operations together have so far cost the lives of twelve Turkish soldiers. [11] [12] [13] [14] In return, 116 PKK fighters are claimed killed, including seven that were hit by Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs. [1] [15]

The weaponry captured from the PKK serves as a testament to the diverse types of weaponry included in their inventory; much of it is sourced from both Iraq and Syria, though a few PKK homemade examples were also included. The captured weapons include expected staples such as the AKM and RPG-7, but also U.S. M16A2/A4 assault rifles and M136 AT4 anti-tank weapons that were likely taken from Iraqi (or Kurdish) security forces or simply acquired on the black market in Iraq. Another notable captured weapon is the homemade 12.7mm Zagros anti-materiel rifle that is in service with the PKK, the YPG in Syria and several other Kurdish armed groups.


Captured weaponry:

Among the captured weaponry were also three remote weapon stations (RWS) presumably taken from Syria or previously captured in Iraq and subsequently modified by the PKK. These, along with modified 14.5mm KPVs, are generally placed on overwatch positions high up on mountains to target incoming Turkish helicopters and the infantry disembarking from them. [2] Other favourite positions for the PKK to set up its HMGs are along the likely avenues of approach of Turkish soldiers in narrow mountain valleys, of which Northern Iraq knows all too many. 

The controls for one of the 12.7mm DShK remote weapon stations

Captured ammunition and mortar grenades. Note that the mortar grenades are thickly wrapped in protective covers to shield them from corrosion while stored in caves and underground arms caches. As they could lie there for years on end before being dug up and put to use, wrapping them in protective material is vital to ensure their proper functioning.

The single 9P58 gripstock for the Strela-2M MANPADS (NATO designation: SA-7b) captured

Most large arms caches and strategic passageways are usually protected by anti-personnel mines and IEDs placed in their vicinity and straddled on avenues of approach, forcing Turkish soldiers to slow down their advance and wait for deminers to create a safe passage. The fact that two Turkish soldiers were killed by IEDs on the 24th and 26th of April proves that this is anything but an easy task.

Many of these IEDs present something of a wildcard during demining operations. Either remotely detonated via a radio-frequency-based mechanism or triggered by a wire (or any other type of trigger mechanism that activates as Turkish soldiers pass by), simplicity is key for PKK IEDs to avoid anti-IED jammers preventing their activation by transmitting a jamming signal. The advent of such backpack anti-IED jammers (like the example in the header image) along with Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) and counter-IED equipment have translated increasingly into greater safety for Turkish soldiers in the field.

Other IEDs are carefully hidden among rock formations waiting for unsuspecting Turkish soldiers (or civilians) to pass by before detonating. The wounding of three Iraqi civilians in the town of Kani Masi, Iraqi Kurdistan, on the 27th of April as a result of an IED left behind by the PKK once again makes painfully clear the high risks associated with such indiscriminate tactics. [16]

Though there is little hope yet for a swift end to Turkey's conflict with the PKK, operations like Operation Claw-Lightning and Claw-Thunderbolt are instrumental in containing the perceived threat, pushing PKK fighters back to ever smaller areas. As such, they limit their effective area of control and strategic capabilities to launch new raids against targets and locations in Turkey, thus ensuring greater security at home. April's actions were conducted simultaneously with the Eren Cudi-Besta and Eren Kazan-Ogul operations aimed at neutralising any remaining PKK remnants in Turkey, as well as to prevent the transit of PKK fighters between Iraq and Turkey. 
Examined together, it is evident that pressure on the PKK continues to increase. In the meantime, it has slowly transitioned from a militant organisation controlling large swaths of land in Iraqi Kurdistan to a terrorist group with increasingly limited capabilities. Turkey on the other hand, seems free to conduct its operations across the region, asserting itself more dominantly than any Turkish state has in modern history.

[6] Komandolarımız Teröristlere Ait Mağaralara Teker Teker Girerek Teröristlerin İzini Sürüyor
[7] Komandolarımız Teröristlerin İninde! Çift Girişli Mağara Ele Geçirildi
[8] Pençe-Şimşek ve Pençe-Yıldırım operasyonları ile teröristlerin inlerine girmeye devam ediyoruz and Pençe-Şimşek ve Pençe-Yıldırım Operasyonları ile Terör Temizliğimiz Hız Kesmeden Devam Ediyor and