Turkey into Iraq? Easier said than done
By Hilmi Toros
ISTANBUL - Turkey is taking final steps toward a military foray into the Iraqi
quagmire. It is a move favored by the public and the military, but opposed by
major powers - and Iraq.
An entry is laden with pitfalls. And exit after that, more so.
The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking - and will
surely obtain - parliamentary approval for a major cross-border military
operation to flush out an estimated 3,500 members of the outlawed separatist
Party (PKK). Guerrillas from the group are suspected of operating in Turkey
from northern Iraq.
The government acted after 15 soldiers were killed within two days last week,
bringing the year's total to 200 such casualties, and public clamor for a
strong military response to separatist insurgents.
Turkish troops and military hardware are amassed now along the Iraq border to
The United States, the European Union and Russia have advised Turkey against
unilateral military action. The Iraqi government has said any Turkish incursion
would infringe on its territorial integrity.
For the time being, Turks are not in listening mode. Back in April, Chief of
Staff Gen Yasar Buyukanit said a military operation was feasible and advisable,
but the government shied away from any move in view of parliamentary elections
on July 22. But now, with casualties rising, government spokesman Cemil Cicek
announced after an emergency meeting: "Time for words is over."
Funerals of fallen soldiers often turn into rallies for revenge, and calls for
a strong military response.
In his toughest criticism of the United States since coming to power in 2002,
Erdogan told a crowd in Istanbul last Friday: ”Nobody can give us lessons on
beyond-border operations. Did the United States consult us when it entered Iraq
from tens of thousands of kilometres away?”
While Turks take note that the United States, along with the EU, lists the PKK
as a terrorist organisation, they are also irate because the US makes no
concrete moves against the group in northern Iraq, which is controlled by its
Iraqi Kurdish allies. Turkey has called its ambassador to Washington home for
If a military move comes, it will be more than a hot-pursuit operation, since
as Defens Minister Vecdi Gonul said, there is no need for parliamentary
approval for a limited foray. Turkish forces have been in and out of northern
Iraq 24 times since 1984 for limited military operations of up to 72-hours
duration and up to five kilometres inside Iraq. Turkey also maintains an
estimated force of 2,000 on the Iraqi side of the border under an accord with
Iraq 23 years ago.
A new attack, when and if it comes, may not end without establishment of a
buffer zone to keep Kurdish insurgents from slipping into Turkey,
Istanbul-based writer and analyst Jerome Bastion told Inter Press Service.
It is unlikely to be a quick operation. "Hunting the rebels will not be easy,"
Bastion said. "They will melt into the local population. The Turkish military
may be confronted by a well-disciplined Iraqi Kurdish military in control of
the region. And what happens if the Turkish military also faces US troops?
These are scary scenarios but not totally unrealistic."
Parliamentary approval may give Erdogan the trump card to push the Iraqi
government and the United States to hunt down rebels on their own if they do
not wish Turkey to do the job. Turkey and the US have been North Atlantic
Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies for over half a century, but their ties have
deteriorated since the Turkish parliament denied entry to US troops from its
territory for toppling Saddam Hussein. Kurds on the other hand have been strong
allies of the United States in the crumbling Iraqi mosaic.
Professor Ilter Turan, a leading analyst of Turkish affairs and vice-president
of the International Political Science Association, believes Turkey and the US
can still work out differences in northern Iraq without a military move by
Turkey. "With Turkey determined to crush the PKK, it is feasible that the
United States will push Iraqi Kurds to capture and turn over to Turkey one or
two top rebel leaders. It will placate Turkish public opinion and avoid a
military move by Turkey."
In its approach to northern Iraq, the Turkish fear is that if an oil-rich
independent Kurdistan emerges from an Iraqi meltdown, its own Kurds (up to 20%
of the population of 72 million) may also make similar demands or at least
press for more autonomy, or even a separate homeland entity within Turkey.
Sedat Laciner, head of the independent Ankara-based International Strategic
Research Organization, says that a Turkish move into northern Iraq would be
seen outside of Turkey as "invasion" and "occupation" and could lead to
increased trans-boundary Kurdish nationalism affecting also Iran and Syria,
both with sizeable Kurdish minorities (four million in Iran, two million in
Syria). Iraq counts five million Kurds in its north.
Laciner told IPS that the financial cost to Turkey of an attack into northern
Iraq could be US$10 billion in flight of foreign capital, quite apart from the
cost of the military operation. The move could also doom Turkey's controversial
bid for full EU membership.
A segment of Turkish society, led by influential liberal commentators, claims
that flushing out 3,500 rebels in northern Iraq and neutralizing some 1,500
within Turkey may not solve the long-standing Kurdish problem.
"The military response is not sufficient on its own," commentator Mehmet Ali
Birand wrote in the mass-circulation daily Posta, stressing the need to enrich
the impoverished Kurdish-populated southeast. The area is missing the economic
boom in the rest of the country.