Turkish gov’t escalates counterterrorism operations as elections in Turkey approach

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday said an operation against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) had begun in the Qandil mountains on the Iran-Iraq border and the Yazidi-Kurdish homeland of Sinjar (Shingal), which is under the control of Iraqi forces.

“We destroyed 14 important targets using 20 of our warplanes. They hit their targets, they returned. We are not done. This will continue,”  Erdoğan boasted during an election rally in the central Anatolian city of Niğde as the country prepares to head to the polls in less than two weeks.

Turkey has, in recent weeks, widened the scope of its military incursions into the PKK-held border areas under the administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.

There was no confirmation from the PKK, Yazidi organizations or the Erbil or Baghdad governments regarding the strikes Erdoğan claimed hit Shingal.

“O’ Chief, take us to Qandil,” his supporters chanted at an event held by his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), according to a report by state media. “Hopefully after June 24, if need be, I will be first, and you after me,” he replied to those who demanded to be enlisted to fight in Qandil, an extremely rugged mountain range with peaks as high as 3,587 meters (11,768 ft)  that serve as the PKK’s headquarters.

He went on to accuse his rival in the presidential election, Muharrem Ince, of “not being as concerned about fighting terrorism.”

“We don’t care about Muharrem,” he said, using the opponent’s first name. “Wherever terrorists go, we will be after them. We have surpassed 4,500 in Afrin,” he added.

Erdoğan was referring to what he claims is the casualty number for the US-armed Kurdish forces defending Syria’s northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin, which the Turkish military captured earlier this year.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also weighed in on the discussion during a meeting in Antalya, saying they would flatten the Qandil Mountains. “You’ve seen how we entered their caves in Afrin, Jarabulus and al-Bab. Now it’s Qandil’s turn. We will bury them in their caves. We will destroy whatever place poses a threat,” Çavuşoğlu said.

Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, during a TV interview on Monday, accused the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of handing over its authority to the PKK after the party exceeded the 10 percent election threshold for the first time in the June 7, 2015 parliamentary elections.

After the election, peace talks between the AKP and the PKK collapsed and the Turkish people experienced the deadliest terror attacks the country’s history. Also in that election, the AKP lost its majority in parliament for the first time since 2002, and eventually a repeat election was held on Nov. 1, 2015 through which the AKP regained the majority.

Government officials blamed the HDP and the PKK for the interruption of the peace negotiations, while the opposition pointed to the AKP and Erdoğan for stopping the talks in order to use the fear of terrorist attacks during election campaigns.

The MetroPOLL company on Sunday published survey results showing responses to the question of what the most important problem facing Turkey is, indicating that when respondents thought terrorism was the most urgent problem, support for the AKP increased, while if they thought the economy was the most critical, support for the AKP declined.

“When we enter the last week [of election campaigns], I say you should add a ‘before Qandil’ and ‘after Qandil’ parameter [to the election forecasts],” Abdülkadir Selvi, a pro-government columnist, wrote in the Hürriyet daily on Monday.

However, President Erdoğan did not elaborate on the details of the alleged strikes in Shingal. The town garnered worldwide attention in 2014 when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) embarked on a genocidal campaign against the ethno-religious Yazidi minority, massacring thousands of their men and kidnapping and sexually enslaving thousands of other women and children.

The PKK found a foothold in the area when it came down from the mountains to help drive out ISIL militants from Shingal alongside the KRG’s peshmerga forces and US-led coalition.

On March 21, Erdoğan said military operations had started in Shingal and that Turkey had “neutralized” 38 PKK militants there in a statement that remained unconfirmed by the army. Last week, Erdoğan also threatened to strike the Makhmour refugee camp, 40 miles southwest of the KRG capital of Erbil, where over 12,000 Kurdish refugees who fled Turkey currently live.

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