Kurdish pawns bind Turkish rook By M K Bhadrakumar
Kurdish insurgents have "constructively engaged" Turkey just as the government
in Ankara was rolling up its sleeves for a bit of vigorous action in the Muslim
Middle East bent on reclaiming its Ottoman legacy. Ankara has been compelled to
train its eyes homeward - for a while, at least. This was also the course
Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had exhorted the nation to
follow - "Peace at home, Peace abroad."
The net gainer will be the regime in Syria as Turkey's preoccupation with
Kurdish insurgents probably gets it a breather. A sigh of exasperation is,
perhaps, audible in the Arabian Peninsula where Saudi Arabia has been pinning
hopes on Turkey's robust intervention in the Syrian situation, while Iran seems
quietly pleased with the developments in the Kurdish mountains.
The clock has been turned back by over two years as the Kurdish
insurgency rears its head in eastern Turkey after a period of relative clam
during which it almost seemed tempting to conjecture that a political
settlement to the problem of Kurdish separatism was round the corner under the
creative leadership of the government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Since Thursday, the Turkish air force has been undertaking a series of
cross-border strikes inside Iraq aimed at liquidating the sanctuaries of
Kurdish insurgents. The targets are located in the regions of Hakurk,
Avasin-Basyan and Zap in northern Iraq. On Saturday, the Turkish army chief
claimed in a communique, "Eighty-five targets were hit accurately and
effectively in the morning and then in the evening ... The damage caused by the
raids is in the process of being evaluated after reconnaissance flights over
Abandoning the political track
Zaman, the pro-government Turkish daily with Islamist leanings, carried an
exclusive report on Friday quoting "confidential sources" in Ankara that Turkey
was setting up "operational front garrisons" inside northern Iraq where
hitherto it used to maintain a low-key intelligence presence to monitor Kurdish
activities. Turkey has kept around 2,500 troops inside Iraq for the past decade
and a half without the approval of the Iraqi government, but this number will
now most certainly go up.
According to the Zaman disclosures, Turkish outposts inside northern Iraq will
be fortified to facilitate the extended deployment of troops and special forces
who could be pressed into operations at short notice with air cover, while the
aerial bombardment will continue to be conducted from Turkish bases. The
Turkish government is apparently seeking a mandate from parliament, as provided
under law, to allow it to conduct cross-border operations at will in the near
The entire strategy seems to be aimed at sustaining pressure on the Kurdish
insurgents by Turkish military units stationed permanently inside Iraq. But
military analysts feel that at some stage Turkey may have to resort to a
full-fledged ground offensive inside Iraq. Clearly, Ankara is "hardening" its
line and the old dogmatic thinking, which failed to work in the past few
decades, is resurfacing; namely, democratization in the Kurdish regions can be
initiated only from a position of strength after "terrorism" has been
If so, it is a great pity that Erdogan is turning his back on one of his most
attractive projects - the so-called "Kurdish opening". In the past two years or
so, he showed great statesmanship and political courage to seek a genuine
national reconciliation between Turks and Kurds by acknowledging past
injustices and creating space for the flowering of Kurdish culture, art and
For more than 80 years, the Kurdish language (known as Kurmanji) was banned in
Turkey and Kurds were harassed for speaking it. Through a series of bold moves
under Erdogan's leadership, Turkey in 2009 began a Kurdish-language television
channel known as TRT6, which although an entertainment channel, broke the taboo
on the Kurdish language.
Anyhow, the indications are that the nascent moves attributed to Erdogan in the
direction of accelerating the search for political reconciliation with the
Kurdish leadership have virtually stalled and the back-channel talks between
the government and Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, who is incarcerated in a
Turkish prison on a remote island in the Sea of Marmara, have petered out.
Ankara is switching to the military track and does not even allow Ocalan's
lawyers to visit him.
A qualitative difference from the past, however, is that Turkey's democracy has
also matured. Whereas Erdogan's "new thinking" on the Kurdish problem drew ire
from traditionalists and "Kemalists", his current switch to a hardline strategy
is being viewed with equal suspicion by the Turkish opposition. It shows how
much Turkey has changed and how Erdogan may be letting go of a splendid
opportunity to press ahead on the political track. The leader of the main
opposition People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, said last week:
years of experience [with Kurdish insurgency] have shown that using weapons
will not end terror. If terror has not ended in this time, the responsibility
falls on the political institution that failed to carry out its duties. And
now, they are at the point of using weapons again. We have to use the language
of peace, we must embrace everyone. We must create a united stance against
terror without discrimination. It is everyone's duty to fight against terror,
with all political parties participating. Let's all get together and voice our
suggestions to end terror, because solving terror is no longer the task of just
one party. We need a societal consensus.
Implied in this
criticism is the apprehension that Erdogan might be "politiking" for domestic
reasons. The CHP, which is rooted in Kemalism and at the fountainhead of
Turkish nationalism, has criticized recently that Erdogan is subserving to
Western geopolitical objectives in the Middle East and as receiving US backing
as a quid pro quo.
Ankara used to come under heavy international condemnation for violating Iraqi
sovereignty and territorial integrity, but Erdogan's estimation currently seems
to be that the West, especially the United States, would prefer to ignore the
Turkish aggression because it is depending on the Islamist government in Ankara
to play a lead role in harnessing the "Arab Spring" in the Muslim Middle East
and taking it in directions that serve the West's geopolitical objectives.
Turkish commentators blithely assume that the West's dependence on Turkey in
the present geopolitical context vastly exceeds Ankara's need of the West.
Indeed, so far there has been no adverse comment from Washington or any
European capitals regarding the Turkish air strikes in Iraq. Ironically, it was
left to Tehran to point out that Turkey is keeping double standards. A
commentary in the Tehran Times said:
The Turkish military's recent
massive attacks on Kurdish separatists have raised the question of why Turkey
is criticizing the Syrian government for its crackdown on armed terrorists ...
No one can deny that the Turkish government has the right to protect its
territorial integrity. However, the Turkish government does not seem to
recognize such a right for other neighboring countries like Syria.
Iran's approach is nuanced and it puts the West, especially the US, on the back
foot. Tehran hints that it empathizes with Ankara's predicament with regard to
the Kurdish insurgency. (Indeed, Iran has also launched military operations in
northern Iraq against Kurdish separatists.)
But that is not something that Washington can easily emulate, given the US's
nexus with the Iraqi Kurds. The US would also be averse to political turbulence
in Iraq at a juncture when it still retains hopes of extending its military
presence beyond end-2011. Tehran is gently pointing out that Turkey and Iran
(and Syria) have shared interests that ought to be prioritized by Ankara.
The immediate provocation for the Turkish incursions into Iraqi territory was a
series of attacks recently by Kurdish insurgents in the eastern provinces,
which reportedly have killed 40 soldiers since July alone. On Wednesday, the
insurgents attacked a military convoy in Cukurca in the southeastern province
of Hakkari, in which nine Turkish soldiers were killed and 15 soldiers were
injured. After Wednesday's attack, Erdogan said his government had "run out of
But, evidently, Turkey's Kurdish problem is also a regional problem. To begin
with, Iraqi politics is passing through a delicate phase with the recrudescence
of violence by Sunni extremists, which will find the Kurds and the Shi'ite
forces seeking greater proximity on the same side of the sectarian divide. The
government in Baghdad, which has voiced support for the Syrian regime, has now
reacted to the Turkish aggression. A Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament,
Shuwan Taha, revealed on Saturday that the parliamentary committee on security
and defense had been tasked with preparing a report on the Turkish air strikes.
The provincial government in northern Iraq led by Kurdish parties also issued a
statement on Sunday expressing "indignation and protest" at the Turkish air
strikes. It warned that any Turkish ground operations "will have negative
reflections on the friendship of the people of the region as a whole and their
common interests and will not consolidate security and stability". The
statement alleged that Turkey's unilateral actions contradicted international
law and "principles of friendship".
The fact remains that there have been all sorts of interference by foreign
elements in Turkey's Kurdish problem, which will make Ankara wary. On the one
hand, Turkish commentators suspect Iran's and Syria's hands in stirring up the
Kurdish pot at precisely this juncture.
Some Turkish commentators mentioned that Israeli intelligence had lately
stepped up its activities in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Israel has
been a reliable partner for Turkey in intelligence-sharing, but it is doubtful
if such cooperation is feasible in the current climate of ties between the two
countries. (Iran alleges that Israel, which has longstanding influence with
Kurdish separatists, is stirring up trouble for Ankara.)
Indeed, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned in Ankara on Saturday
that unless Israel apologized over the deadly 2010 flotilla raid that killed
nine Turkish nationals (the Israeli cabinet has resolved not to render an
apology) then Turkey's ties with Israel would further deteriorate.
Davutoglu said, "There can be no normalization with Israel if Turkey's demands
are not met. Relations will not remain as they are now, they will deteriorate
even more ... The current situation cannot be sustained." The thinking in
Ankara seems to be to further downgrade Turkey's representation. It has already
recalled the Turkish ambassador from Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, Turkey faces yet another problem in eastern Mediterranean. Cyprus
has announced plans to begin oil and gas exploration in the eastern
Mediterranean in the next six weeks, covering a 324,000-hectare economic zone
bordering the waters of Israel where massive gas fields have been discovered.
Ankara has objected to the drilling and warned of intervention if the
exploration goes ahead until the Cyprus problem is resolved, which would ensure
the Turkish Cypriot community's share of any natural resources.
Curiously, it is an American oil company, Noble Energy, that Nicosia has
engaged for the exploration. Behind Nicosia stands Greece, for sure.
(Interestingly, Moscow has also jumped into the fray, voicing support for
Nicosia). In short, Turkey finds itself arrayed against a range of interests in
the very same eastern Mediterranean region, which forms Syria's coast -
Cypriot, Israeli, Greek and American. Its remaining option is to prevail on the
Barack Obama administration to put in a persuasive word with Noble Energy to go
slow in the exploration work.
All the same, the Syrian opposition held a third conclave on Turkish soil,
meeting in Istanbul on Saturday in a move to form a council that could assume
power in the event of President Bashar al-Assad stepping down. No doubt, Ankara
took a policy decision to allow the conclave to take place and is probably
keeping its mediatory options vis-a-vis the Syrian situation open; but then, it
also seems to have kept a low profile.
This very same stance of duality also appears in Ankara distancing itself from
the US president's demand last week that Assad should go. A Turkish diplomat
has been quoted as saying that there has yet to be a unified demand by the
Syrian people for Assad to step down.
Turkey's highly professional diplomats are well clued on regional developments.
They would be reporting back to Ankara on the series of developments last week
on the Palestine front - the killing of Israelis by terrorists in Sinai,
Israel's retaliatory attacks on Gaza and its operations in Sinai in violation
of the 1979 peace agreement, and the killing of Egyptian security personnel by
Israel leading to a sudden deterioration in Egypt-Israel relations, with Cairo
deciding to recall its ambassador in Tel Aviv and Egyptian protestors demanding
the "expulsion" of the Israeli ambassador. Ankara would surmise that these
developments introduce a new focal point in regional politics.
The Turkish position on these developments is bound to be critical of Israel.
On the other hand, the US's and European countries' shyness in coming out with
an open stance is all too striking in comparison with a strident position from
the Arab League. Turkey would have no problem anticipating that the net
beneficiary, again, is going to be the Syrian regime. The point is, Ankara
would put all these impressions together and recognize that the desert storm in
Sinai can temporarily at least blight the advent of the Arab Spring in Syria.
To be sure, all this may not have a direct impact on the Syrian situation as
such, which continues to deteriorate, but it will compel Ankara to rethink its
regional strategies. The probability of a robust Turkish intervention in Syria
almost certainly diminishes with the Turkish military and intelligence having
their hands full in the Kurdish regions.
If the US were to regard Turkey as its preferred North Atlantic Treaty
Organization partner - given the preoccupations of its European allies in the
Libyan deserts - to play the "lead role" in pushing for regime change in
Damascus, Ankara may not be inclined to view things that way.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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