Turkey set to attack Kurds in Iraq By Ximena Ortiz
Turkey has defied the wishes of the United States by giving its military a
green light to cross the border into Iraq, following a number of ambushes
apparently waged by a Kurdish rebel group with bases in northern Iraq. And on
Wednesday, Turkish warplanes and helicopter gunships attacked suspected rebel
positions close to the Iraq border.
Turkey's decision could come to imperil the already precarious stability and
prosperity of Iraq’s Kurdish region. And while the stakes for the United
States, Iraq and Turkey in Iraqi Kurdistan
are substantial in broad economic and geopolitical terms, one of the major
factors is the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK), a rag-tag group numbering in the
low-thousands and holed up in rugged, mountainous terrain.
In the face of ambushes on Sunday linked to the PKK, in which more than 10
Turkish soldiers were killed, and the subsequent escalation of tension with
Turkey, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership appears to be facing the situation with a
certain aplomb - at least in its rhetoric. In a telephone interview, the
foreign minister for the Kurdish area of Iraq, Falah M Bakir, said, "Of course
we understand Turkey’s concerns, but we don’t believe that crossing the border
will effectively address them."
Bakir, who is in New York for a meeting of the UN General Assembly, said that
his regional government and Turkish officials are currently reduced to
communicating with each other through the media. In the wake of the recent
elections in Turkey, Bakir said he and his colleagues had held out the hope
that a constructive dialogue with Turkey would begin. "Unfortunately there is
no dialogue right now. But we are ready for talks."
When asked about Turkey’s concerns that Iraqi-Kurdish officials are not doing
enough to counter the PKK, Bakir said that the group is trying to further its
goals through peaceful, political aims. But when asked, he did not deny that
the group could be responsible for the recent attacks in Turkey. He added that
the PKK is spread out in a mountainous terrain on the border, does not have
formal bases that can be attacked, and is not part of the official political
structure of his regional government.
The long-suffering and persecuted Kurds have agitated both militarily and
politically for greater autonomy or independence in the countries where they
have a presence: Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. The PKK is to some the
torchbearer of the Kurdish struggle. But the group has seen its capabilities
severely diminished since its apogee in the 1990s.
In 1999, the group called a unilateral ceasefire that lasted almost until the
end of 2005. Since then, the group has launched some seemingly almost
half-hearted attacks in Turkey, but those have paled in comparison with the
success of its recent ambushes.
According to some experts, Bakir's low key statements may also reflect the
generally restrained response of the Turkish government, until now. Carole
O'Leary, a Scholar in Residence at the American University Center for Global
Peace, said the current Turkish government has been responsible in its
reactions to PKK provocations. "While generally wary of Islamic governance, I
have been very supportive of the actions of the ruling AK Party in Turkey," she
She added that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul
must show the Turkish people that they can and will uphold law and order in
Turkey. "A more nationalist, far right government," she said, "clearly by now
would have intervened militarily in a major way" in the Kurdistan region of
On Tuesday, Erdogan’s office said in a statement: "The order has been given for
every kind of measure to be taken [to counter the PKK], including if needed a
cross-border operation" into northern Iraq. Turkey has already been shelling
parts of northern Iraq, said Professor Henri Barkey, chair of the international
relations department at Lehigh University. Since it would be too difficult for
the Turkish military to move large artillery into the areas where PKK fighters
camp out, the Turks probably have in mind targeted air-strikes or limited
helicopter commando raids, said Barkey. Such a scenario would not worry the
Kurdish regional government excessively.
Still, an escalation of Turkish military activity within the Kurdish region of
Iraq could be risky. If the Turkish military hits civilians, Iraq would respond
to Turkey, potentially causing far-reaching problems in bilateral relations.
And then there is the question of civil-military relations in Turkey. The
current government, with its ostensible Islamic leanings, already has strained
relations with the military, which is seen by some as the caretaker of
secularism in Turkey.
In this regard, noted Barkey, the Kurdish issue could be the Achilles' heel for
the Turkish government, and could be used by the military to agitate the
nationalist constituency in Turkey if the government isn’t seen responding
forcefully. An intentional provocation of Iraqi Kurds by the Turkish military
to undermine the Turkish government is also within the realm of possibility.
For the United States, balancing the interests of the generally pro-American
Iraqi Kurds, whose region is the only showcase of stability in Iraq, and NATO
ally Turkey, will continue to demand diplomatic dexterity, noted Barkey. Such
dexterity is something which is in short supply in the lower levels of the US
State Department, at the assistant-secretary level, he added.
And there is another fresh wrinkle. Turkey warned on Thursday that relations
with the US would be harmed by a US House committee’s approval on Wednesday of
a non-binding resolution calling the 1915 massacres of Armenians by Ottoman
Turks "genocide". The 27-21 decision by the House of Representatives foreign
affairs committee comes before a vote in the full House in coming weeks, and
occurred in spite of a warning from President George W Bush that cooperation
with Turkey and the fate of US troops in Iraq could be at stake.
”Our government regrets and condemns this decision," a statement from the
Turkish government said of the House vote. "It is unacceptable that the Turkish
nation has been accused of something that never happened in history."
Interestingly though, political questions aside, the Iraqi Kurds and the
Turkish government have commercial interests that could bind them. Exploration
in the Kurdish region of Iraq indicates that significant amounts of oil could
come online and Turkey would be the natural corridor for new pipelines. Given
some progress between Turkish and Iraqi-Kurdish relations, new pipelines could
bind these two US allies, and thereby help them in overcoming the age-old blood
feud long besetting the sides.
But while Saddam-era pipelines between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey already
exist, new construction would require a triumph over long-held sectarian and
Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at National Interest.