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Has the PKK acquired kamikaze drones to hit Turkish aircraft?

The Kurdish group may have obtained Iranian-made UAVs to attack Turkey's combat drones
A member of the PKK carries an automatic rifle on a road in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, 22 June, 2018 (AFP/Safin Hamid)
A member of the PKK carries an automatic rifle on a road in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq, 22 June 2018 (AFP/Safin Hamid)
By Ragip Soylu and Levent Kemal in Istanbul, Turkey

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) says that it has acquired the capability to shoot down Turkish armed drones operating in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.

In a statement on Wednesday, accompanied by a video of falling aerial objects, the Kurdish armed group claimed that it has taken down 13 Turkish drones in northern Iraq since 13 February 2023.

The PKK has waged an insurgency against Ankara since the 1980s. It is designated as a terror group by Turkey, the EU, and the US due to its deadly campaigns against civilian targets.

The same day, Turkish officials released footage that shows an apparent air strike that targeted Rojda Bilen, a PKK member, in northern Iraq.

Yahya Bostan, a Turkish columnist with access to the government, wrote on Friday that the PKK had acquired “kamikaze” suicide drone technology to try to target Turkish drones.

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“The terror group accessed this tech through Bafel Talabani,” he said in an article that appeared on government-aligned Yeni Safak daily, referencing the leader of one of the two major Iraqi Kurdish political parties.

He added that Iran had been indirectly backing the PKK, something that has been bothering Ankara for a while.

Ankara believes Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Talabani has been closely working with PKK offshoots in Syria, providing them with supplies and access to airports in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

As a result, in 2023 Turkey closed its airspace to the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Sulaymaniyah, which is a PUK stronghold.

Turkey has used its renowned combat drones, such as the Bayraktar TB2 and Anka, to force PKK fighters further south in Iraq and away from the Turkish border. The Turkish military has also conducted several military operations against the PKK in northern Iraq since 2016.

Turkish officials also conduct what they call “decapitation” operations to methodically kill senior PKK officials both in Iraq and in Syria.

If the PKK has indeed obtained the capability to counter these attacks, it could change the balance on the battlefield.

Turkey is fighting to push the PKK out of Iraq's northern mountains (AFP)
Turkey is fighting to push the PKK out of Iraq's northern mountains (AFP)

A Turkish official with knowledge of the situation confirmed to Middle East Eye that the PKK has been trying to acquire kamikaze drone systems. “But it isn’t clear who is supplying these systems to them,” the official said.

Separate sources, who spoke to MEE on condition of anonymity, said that the PKK had acquired Iranian-made Meraj anti-drone kamikaze systems and that these systems were sent to the group through two channels linked to Tehran.

According to these sources, Talabani might have played a role in their acquisition.

Sources said that the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that appeared in the PKK’s footage displayed no traces of any explosion and seemed to have crashed due to technical problems.

Far from conclusive

Hursit Dingil, a research fellow at Ankara-based Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM), said the PKK footage was very low quality and far from conclusive.

He agreed that the group could have used footage of Turkish drones that crashed with technical faults rather than an attack.

“However, the Meraj-532 model, which is present in Iraq, could target UAVs at a high altitude. Other models, such as the Meraj 521, don’t have the same effectiveness since they don’t reach much of a high altitude,” he told MEE.

“The Iranian-made 358 loitering surface-to-air missile system, which has been present in the Iraq theatre, also has direct anti-drone capabilities.”

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Paramilitary commanders, Iraqi army officers, and observers told MEE in 2021 that at least three Iraqi armed factions have the necessary technical and weapons capabilities to launch massive and brutal attacks using Iranian drones that are also assembled in the country.

Kurdish sources in the region with knowledge of the issue told MEE that, besides possible Iranian equipment, the PKK has opened companies in various countries to transfer technology from China that could be used to counter Turkey's drones.

Earlier this month, Iraq declared the PKK a “banned organisation” after intensive Turkish lobbying.

Ankara says the PKK threatens the Iraq Development Road Project, which aims to establish a 1,200km highway and railway that would connect the Gulf to Turkey through Iraq.

Turkish officials also previously complained that Iran was having a negative influence over Iraq when it came to combating the PKK.

A second Turkish official batted away concerns that the PKK was gaining technology to counter Turkey’s drones, saying Ankara will continue to hit the Kurdish group using the military’s sophisticated capabilities no matter what.

“They talk but we hit them,” the official said. 

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