A Small But Potentially Difficult Opponent
By Breffni O'Rourke
October 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey is moving troops and heavy equipment to its border with Iraq in preparation for a possible major incursion into northern Iraq in pursuit of guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Turkey has an army of half a million troops equipped with NATO-standard arms and backed by air support. The PKK, meanwhile, is estimated to have some 6,000 lightly armed fighters in Iraq. But being based in the harsh, mountainous terrain of northern Iraq makes it very difficult for them to be confronted.
International military consultant Alexandra Ashbourne says that -- if it does go into Iraq -- the Turkish Army won't have things its own way in the rugged mountain terrain along the border. "If there is conflict, it will be fought on guerrilla terms; even if there is an official mismatch between the capabilities and equipment of the Turkish forces compared with the PKK, I think it is actually a rather level playing field," she says.
Ashbourne says the Turks won't be able to take advantage of their modern battle-tank forces, nor will their heavy artillery be able to deploy to its best advantage. Instead, Turkish troops will face the classic guerrilla tactics of avoiding frontal confrontation at all costs and attacking only with the element of surprise.
She describes the Turkish Army as a very capable force. But in conventional fighting -- not in the confines of high mountain passes and ravines. In the mountains it could come to close-quarters warfare, guerrilla-style, for which many of the young conscripts of the Turkish Army are not well-trained. "Whereas [on the other side] you have the PKK, who are not technically elite forces but who are well-disciplined, well-trained, and passionate for their cause," she notes.
The coming winter will severely test the resolve of both sides, but the PKK has the advantage of being on familiar territory with at least a measure of sympathy from many of the Iraqi Kurds -- a comfort the Turkish soldiers would not find.
Then there is the question of air power. The Turks have modern jet fighters and ground-attack helicopters at their disposal. The PKK, on the other hand, is exposed on the ground. But here, the advantage of the Kurds is the paucity of their numbers: no big formations of troops to bomb, just small bands of men able to melt away into the terrain -- especially in the mists and storms of the autumn weather.
The Turks "will face problems very similar to those that the [U.S.-led] coalition faces in Afghanistan -- a very organized opponent who is used to the terrain and can disappear into the hillsides," says Craig Hoyle, the defense editor of the magazine "Flight International." "You are not going to want to kill many [civilians], so you are restricted to using such things as attack helicopters, and that's a difficult task unless you have [opponents] in the open."