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    Middle East
     Feb 26, 2008
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Turkey's offensive comes at a price
By M K Bhadrakumar

The high Qandil mountains and deep gorges on the northern Iraqi border region with Iran must be one of the world's most ideal terrains for guerrilla war. That is where the fighters of the separatist Turkish Kurdish movement the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) have set up its headquarters. The PKK is close enough to the Turkish border to stage its guerrilla attacks and can easily frustrate "hot pursuits" by the Turkish army.

There is a popular saying that Kurds have no friends but the mountains. The region offers one of the world's spectacular natural fortresses, virtually impossible to penetrate. Especially so in the winter with heavy snowfall, frequent treacherous avalanches and howling icy winds mercilessly ransacking anything out in the


Without doubt, the seasoned military commanders in Ankara know that the Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq, which began last Thursday just after sunset, can settle nothing. The Pashas are highly professional men and are hard realists who act with deliberation. They would know that it will not be easy to find the Kurdish guerrillas who know every inch of their mountain strongholds and evaded for decades even a skilful predator like Saddam Hussein.

More so, since the current Turkish operation lacks the all-important element of surprise. It has been in the making for months - visibly and meticulously. It has been on the drawing board at the military, political and diplomatic level. Besides, the world knows it is not in the Turkish character to back off, looking weak, when provoked. The first stage of the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq began last December when the Turkish air force started attacking PKK camps and insisted this was a prelude to a ground offensive to follow.

Turkey's General Staff said that 33 PKK rebels, including a leader, and eight soldiers died in heavy fighting in poor weather conditions on Sunday. It said at least 112 rebels and 15 soldiers had died since the operations began.

Turkish domestic reaction
The Kurdish guerrillas knew they had provoked Turkey too far this past year and retribution wouldn't be long in coming. They could have gone into hiding. Therefore, the Turkish incursion on Thursday is to be evaluated not for its military results but for its political and strategic implications. A few hundred Turkish troops on search-and-destroy missions in the Iraqi mountains cannot solve the Kurdish problem. They may render a blow to PKK morale, but when the snow melts and the passes open, it is a wide open question whether the PKK cadres will resume their bloody business.

Meanwhile, the switch to the military track may scotch prospects of any serious national reconciliation with Turkey's Kurdish population that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been seeking. Indeed, Erdogan realizes that Turkey has a Kurdish problem which needs to be politically addressed. Enlightened sections of Turkish opinion share his view.

They realize, as one of Turkey's senior editors, Ilnur Cevik, wrote, "There are millions of Kurds living in Turkey and a sizeable majority has integrated into our society. But there are also those who do not feel a part of us and demand to be treated as first class citizens of the Turkish republic. They feel discriminated, persecuted and underprivileged. They believe the reason for this is their ethnic background." The cross-border operations into northern Iraq might end up hardening grievances. But then that is looking ahead.

In immediate terms, the Turkish nation has rallied in patriotic fervor as powerful images come flooding home of brave lads in smart military fatigues heading for the battlefront, of tanks and heavy armor menacingly advancing towards the border and of F-16 aircraft pounding the staggering Kurdish mountains. Even grumpy sections of Turkey's corporate media have fallen in line, including some whom Erdogan lately antagonized by not accommodating their business interests. "Ten thousands heroes in northern Iraq," hailed the mass circulation Hurriyet newspaper belonging to the Dogan group.

The secular "Kemalists", who were appalled by Erdogan's latest constitutional reform lifting the ban on Turkish women wearing headscarves at universities, have shifted their attention to national security. The dark rumors of a military coup against the Islamist government have scattered. The staunchly secular-minded Turkish judiciary may now hesitate to uphold appeals against Erdogan's reform over headscarves.

All in all, the acute political polarization in Turkey in recent weeks between the Islamist and secular camps takes a back seat. True, the mounting economic difficulties arising out of slowing economic growth, falling investment rates, mounting unemployment, inflation and widening income disparities will not easily go away. But historically, the working class too becomes susceptible to nationalism.

Shifting alignments in Iraq
However, the timing of the incursion has a far wider significance. It is obvious that the timing has much to do with political alignments within Iraq. For the first time since 2003, Iraqi Kurds are politically isolated. The Kurdish parties have come under pressure from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government, as it pushes through a US$45 billion budget that substantially reduces the share of income of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) from 17% to 14.5%. Baghdad also refuses to pay the salary of the 80,000-strong Kurdish militia (Peshmerga) or to allow the provincial legislature to remove federally appointed provincial governors. Equally, Baghdad is firm on the federal government's prerogative to be the sole authority to award contracts to foreign oil companies.

Sunni parties, the Shi'ite Sadrist movement, the Turkomen party (supported by Ankara) and possibly the Iraqi List headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi (who has links with the West) are arrayed as a majority grouping within the Iraqi Parliament, which seeks strengthening of Baghdad's central authority over the Kurdish provinces. The US remains supportive of Maliki.

Iraqi Kurdish ambitions no longer match US interests. A devastating recent essay by Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute titled "Is Iraqi Kurdistan a Good Ally?" analyzed the shifting alignments. Rubin thoroughly questioned the assumptions regarding the Iraqi Kurds' "pro-Americanism". He underscored that Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani would turn out to be like former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a thorn in Washington's side. Rubin alleged double-dealings by the Iraqi Kurds with Iran. He suggested the rampantly corrupt and decadent leadership in Kurdistan could only lead to a strengthening of the forces of religious conservatism and the growth of Islamist parties.

Rubin concluded, "As Turkish warplanes bomb terrorist bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, it is time for both Washington and Irbil [capital of the KRG] to reassess their policies. Washington has many cards to play. Sympathy to Kurdistan is understandable, but is increasingly based on myth. US goodwill should never be an entitlement. Barzani may remain an ally, but he has disqualified himself from any substantive partnership. It is time to take a tough-love approach to Iraqi Kurdistan. There should be no aid and no diplomatic legitimacy so long as Iraqi Kurdistan remains a PKK safe haven, sells US security to the highest bidder, and leaves democratic reform stagnant."

Nothing like this has ever been said by a leading American analyst about the Iraqi Kurds, who were the darling of US policymakers through the past 17-year period since Saddam's catastrophic Gulf War in 1991. Rubin sent out a deadly message - Washington has no more critical need of Iraqi Kurds.

He was spot on. The US military in Iraq has concluded that the best means of countering the Sunni insurgency is by bribing the militants. The success of the policy has sharply reduced US dependence on the Kurdish Peshmerga. As the US military works on a similar deal with the Shi'ite Sadrist militias as well, the use of Peshmerga as foot soldiers of counterinsurgency operations further diminishes.

The US's Iraq strategy
The shift in US thinking is already manifesting. The referendum on the status of the Kirkuk area, which was due last December, stands postponed until June - perhaps, indefinitely. Washington may listen to Ankara's plea that Kirkuk must be given a special status under a United Nations mandate, as the Turks do not want to see it incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan.

Washington has abandoned any plans of setting up a permanent military base in northern Iraq. William Arkin, a prominent US security analyst, wrote in his Washington Post blog last week that President George W Bush is pressing ahead with a period of "consolidation and reorganization" and "the likelihood of any significant change in Iraq is slim".

Arkin substantiates that Bush is "quietly putting in place the pieces that will indeed tie the next president's hands". The emphasis is on contracting US combat forces in Iraq to a fewer number of combat forces and special operations forces and to fight the war in Iraq from other locations.

Thus, in Kuwait, the US is completing finishing touches on a permanent ground forces command for Iraq and the region, which is capable of being a platform for "full spectrum operations" in 27 countries around southwest Asia and the Middle East. In Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman, the US Air Force and navy have set up additional permanent bases.

According to Arkin, "tens of billions have been ploughed into the American infrastructure", and "permanently deployed with the new regional headquarters in Kuwait will be a theater-level logistical command, a communications command, a military intelligence brigade, a 'civil affairs' group and a medical command".

But, interestingly, the Bush strategy virtually leaves Iraq's northern side without any significant American military presence. Such a security vacuum is unsustainable. Clearly, Washington expects Turkey to play a major role as the guardian of the stability of northern Iraq. This is logical thinking. Turkey is perfectly capable of keeping at bay the two other prowling powers in northern Iraq's neighborhood - Iran and Syria. It suits American - and Israeli - interests if Ankara doesn't advance its entente cordiale any further with Tehran and Damascus.

Ankara also welcomes the role of being a pivotal power in US regional policies. To quote Gungor Uras of the liberal Milliyet newspaper, "The US is now reshaping the Middle East. While this is happening, Turkey has the choice of either sitting on one side and watching developments, or taking an active role. US support has great importance for ending terrorism in Turkey, resolving the Kurdish and Armenian issues, our relations with our neighbors, and keeping the military strong ... Do not forget that the US carried us to the waiting room of the European Union ... Foreign capital and loans come through New York. Washington's green light is important to prevent jams on the road to New York."

Moreover, the transportation routes of the oil and gas resources of northern Iraq pass through Turkey. Ankara has a genuine interest in keeping the area stable. Several inter-linkages have already appeared around energy security. The growing regional energy interdependence places Turkey at an advantage. Turkey has always prided itself as Europe's energy hub. Washington will encourage a key role for Turkey in proposed trans-Caspian energy pipeline projects, which will also put the brakes on swiftly expanding Russia-Turkey cooperation. The Arab Gas Pipeline connects Turkey with Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. Turkey is working on an energy linkup with Israel.

Again, it is the oil and gas supplies from Iraq that will help realize the viability of the 3,300-kilometer Nabucco pipeline (running from the Caspian Sea via Turkey and the Balkan states to Austria), without which Russia's tightening grip over the European energy market cannot be loosened, which, in turn, holds profound implications for Russia's relations with Europe and for the US's trans-Atlantic leadership.

US policy review on Turkey
Thus, all in all, Washington has estimated the urgent need to accommodate Turkey's aspirations as a regional power. The Bush administration seems to have undertaken a major policy review toward Turkey in the October-November period last year around the same time it considered the follow-up on the troop "surge" in Iraq. It concluded that for a variety of reasons, abandoning Iraqi Kurds to their fate is a small price to pay for reviving Turkey's friendship.

The turning point came during the visit of Erdogan to the US in November. Almost overnight, the body language of US-Turkey relations began to change. The chilly rhetoric abruptly changed to warm backslapping. The emphasis was on the commonality of interests in the struggle against terrorism. There was an unmistakable impatience in the US calls on the Iraqi Kurdish leadership to restrain the PKK through concrete steps.

Immediately after Erdogan's visit, deputy chief of the Turkish

Continued 1 2 

Turkey: Wrapped and delivered (Feb 15, '08)
Turkey in denial of al-Qaeda threat (Feb 17, '08)

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(Feb 22-24, 2008)


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