Why Has Erdogan Ramped Up Turkey’s Clash With the PKK?

Intensifying conflict with the Kurdish armed movement in Iraq and Syria will likely improve his chances of reelection.

By , a senior program manager at Carnegie Europe, where he researches EU-Turkey relations and EU policies toward the Middle East-North Africa region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a group meeting of his Justice and Development Party at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, Turkey, on May 18.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a group meeting of his Justice and Development Party at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, Turkey, on May 18.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech during a group meeting of his Justice and Development Party at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, Turkey, on May 18. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

On May 13, Turkey pulled the brake on Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bid over Helsinki and Stockholm’s relationship with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed rebel group that has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. Since the 1980s, the conflict between Turkey and the PKK over greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds has claimed thousands of victims’ lives and has led the latter to establish a network of affiliates in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Although Ankara has already softened its position on NATO expansion—the latest chapter in its balancing act between traditional Western allies and President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, perhaps—clashes with the Kurdish armed movement along Turkey’s southern border have recently intensified.

Confrontations between Turkey and the PKK on this front have been traditionally justified by the Turkish government’s antiterrorism narrative, according to which removal of any PKK presence along the country’s southern border is imperative for Turkish security.

What is different this time around is that Turkey’s military interventions in northern Syria and Iraq as well as its grandstanding around Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership have potentially deep domestic implications. With Turkey weathering one of the worst economic crises of the last two decades and facing waves of anti-refugee sentiments, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan anticipates a difficult general election, to be held in June 2023. The Turkish president is using conflicts with the Kurdish armed movements to improve his standing at home and secure new sources of investment, foreign currency, and energy that can help him get reelected.

On May 13, Turkey pulled the brake on Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bid over Helsinki and Stockholm’s relationship with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed rebel group that has been designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. Since the 1980s, the conflict between Turkey and the PKK over greater autonomy for Turkey’s Kurds has claimed thousands of victims’ lives and has led the latter to establish a network of affiliates in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Although Ankara has already softened its position on NATO expansion—the latest chapter in its balancing act between traditional Western allies and President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, perhaps—clashes with the Kurdish armed movement along Turkey’s southern border have recently intensified.

Confrontations between Turkey and the PKK on this front have been traditionally justified by the Turkish government’s antiterrorism narrative, according to which removal of any PKK presence along the country’s southern border is imperative for Turkish security.

What is different this time around is that Turkey’s military interventions in northern Syria and Iraq as well as its grandstanding around Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership have potentially deep domestic implications. With Turkey weathering one of the worst economic crises of the last two decades and facing waves of anti-refugee sentiments, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan anticipates a difficult general election, to be held in June 2023. The Turkish president is using conflicts with the Kurdish armed movements to improve his standing at home and secure new sources of investment, foreign currency, and energy that can help him get reelected.


On the Iraqi front, Turkey has been reinforcing its alliance with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which controls northern Iraq, by negotiating a new energy deal. Given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, these energy relations have become even more important. With Turkey looking to diversify its energy portfolio in various directions, the recent discovery of large, untapped natural gas reserves to the east and south of Kirkuk, Iraq, is just another reminder for Ankara that the KRG is an important strategic partner.

On April 18, the Turkish Armed Forces started a military offensive in northern Iraq, code-named Claw-Lock. This operation targets PKK forces operating in tunnels, caves, and bunkers in the area between Metina and Zap in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. The PKK has been using northern Iraq as a base from where to attack Turkey for decades.

Although the Peshmerga (the Kurdish branch of the Iraqi military) denied cooperating with the Turkish military on this offensive, the KRG’s ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), did not condemn the operation. In fact, Operation Claw-Lock has been preceded by high-level contacts between Turkey and the KRG, which share the objective of limiting the role of the PKK in northern Iraq—and which also struck a lucrative deal for the export of oil from Kirkuk and Erbil in Iraq to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in 2014.

Despite Turkey’s continued interest in the prospect, however, exporting Kurdish gas to Turkey and then Europe faces many obstacles: rivalries and infighting within the Kurdish camp, the tentative timeline for increasing production on the Kurdish side, and the ambivalent relationship between Ankara and Baghdad.

This last point is crucial: To make the energy deal work, all parties involved will need to work together, which will not be easy because the Iraqi government has contested the legitimacy of the Ankara-Erbil energy deals. Turkey has already reached out to the United States to smooth things out with the Iraqi government, and other developments point to possible direct cooperation between the two capitals. Shortly after Operation Claw-Lock started, the Iraqi government deployed troops in Sinjar District at the border between Iraq and Syria. Baghdad has denied coordinating its intervention with Turkey, but it shares Ankara’s goals in Sinjar: Both parties want to limit the role of various militias that operate in the region, which have links to Iran.

In this scenario, another factor that might pull Ankara and Baghdad together is their turbulent relationship with Tehran. The removal of militia from Sinjar and the establishment of a new energy deal would restrict Iran’s access to Syria and diminish its role as a regional energy provider.


Syria is another region where tensions between Turkey and the PKK have recently spiked.

Since 2016, Turkey has come to directly or indirectly control large swaths of Syrian territory along the Syrian-Turkish border. The rest of the borderlands are administered by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group that aims to create a secular, autonomous government in northeastern Syria and is dominated by a Syrian Kurdish militia. Turkey considers this militia as one and the same with the PKK: In recent years, divergences over the support provided to the Syrian Kurds have been one of the main points of contention between Ankara and Washington.

Since Operation Claw-Lock kicked off in northern Iraq, Ankara has scaled up the intensity of its attacks against Kurdish militia targets in northern Syria, launching repeated drone strikes and killing several members. But pushing Kurdish forces and citizens away from the border is not the only factor driving Turkey’s presence in northern Syria: Ankara has created de facto states in the territories it controls where it could relocate Syrian refugees of Sunni Muslim origin currently living in Turkey.

Turkey hosts 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees in addition to almost 2 million other foreigners. In the last few months, episodes of racism have become increasingly frequent, including a violent riot against a Syrian community in Ankara last summer, with resentment against refugees exacerbated by the nation’s economic crisis. Many Turks perceive Syrians as stealing their jobs and receiving premium access to health care and education.

The refugee question has been at the center of the Turkish political debate for almost a decade, but by taking advantage of public opinion, the opposition has been hitting on this point harder than usual in recent weeks. A 9-minute dystopian mockumentary entitled “Silent Invasion,” which shows Turkey dominated by Syrians in 2043, has been very popular, accruing more than 4.5 million YouTube views in less than a month and helping to frame the migration debate as a matter of “national survival.” A new far-right, anti-refugee party has emerged, and the rest of the opposition has pledged once again that, if elected, they would send all refugees back to Syria within two years.

Responding to this pressure, Erdogan scaled up his rhetoric about refugees. On May 3, in a video message delivered at the opening of a briquette houses camp in the Syrian district of Idlib, the Turkish president announced that the government is working on a “new project that will enable the voluntary return of 1 million [Syrians]” to safe zones Turkey controls in northern Syria.

As the debate on voluntary relocations continues, Turkey is working to achieve another important strategic objective. If Sunni Muslims are relocated to northern Syria, the Kurdish populations living there will be diluted. The hope in Ankara is that this demographic reengineering will prevent the emergence of a Syrian Kurdish proto-state and thus guarantee Turkey’s security in the long term.

If military operations in northern Iraq and Syria are successful, Erdogan won’t only have created a PKK-free strip of land along its southern border. He will also have cemented Turkey’s energy cooperation with the Iraqi Kurds and provided a solution to the refugee question that he can capitalize on with voters. At a time of economic hardship and while facing the most difficult reelection campaign of his political career, these moves will improve Erdogan’s electoral chances.

Francesco Siccardi is a senior program manager at Carnegie Europe, where he coordinates the strategic planning, fundraising, execution, and outreach for the center’s research programs. While supporting work on security, defense, and the EU’s global role as well as the impact of climate change and disruptive technologies on international affairs, Siccardi’s own research focuses on EU-Turkey relations and on EU policies toward the Middle East-North Africa region. Twitter: @fsiccardi

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