Turkey’s pressure on PKK further complicates the uncertain situation in Iraq

Developing Just Leadership

Nasr Salem

Shawwal 20, 1428 2007-11-01

Occupied Arab World

by Nasr Salem (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 9, Shawwal, 1428)

The already complicated and volatile situation in Iraq may be about to deteriorate further. After months of escalating tensions along the Iraq-Turkey border, in October 17 the Turkish parliament passed a motion submitted by the government of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that permits military strikes on Iraq. The motion, the first of its kind since Turkey’s invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, was approved by an overwhelming majority of 507 in the 550-member Turkish grand national assembly. Only 19 legislators from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (Demokratic Toplum Partisi or DTP) voted against the motion; the rest abstained. Effectively, the measure gives the government an authority, valid for one year, to order the Turkish armed forces to conduct operations in pursuit of rebels belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known by its Kurdish initials PKK (Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan), who take refuge in the mountains of northern Iraq.

Despite obtaining this parliamentary authority, Turkish leaders have stated publicly that the parliamentary decision will not necessarily be followed by immediate military action. “It does not mean that everything will happen once we have the authorisation,” Erdogan is reported to have said before the parliamentary vote. “We want to have the authorisation in hand so as to make a swift decision when it becomes necessary.”

The request for a legal cover for raids inside Iraq was provoked by intensified PKK attacks in recent weeks. On October 7, thirteen Turkish soldiers were killed by PKK rebels in the worst day in the conflict in nearly a decade. On October 21, twelve soldiers were killed, 16 wounded and eight were reported to have been captured by PKK rebels who ambushed their convoy near Turkey’s borders with Iraq. This is the largest seizure of Turkish soldiers by Kurdish rebels since 1995, when Kurdish guerrillas captured eight soldiers and held them for two years in bases in northern Iraq before releasing them. The Turkish military estimates that about 3,500 PKK members are in bases and hideouts in the Kurdish north of Iraq, and that between 1,500 and 2,500 more are active inside Turkish territory. Rebels periodically cross the border to perpetrate attacks in their war for autonomy, which they launched in 1984 and which has so far cost some 37,000 lives.

Initially, Erdogan was reluctant to heed calls from the military to retaliate against PKK attacks. In May, Erdogan and the army’s chief of staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, disagreed in public after the prime minister refused to approve a request by the military for a cross-border operation against the PKK. One reason for Erdogan’s shying away from military action at the time had to do with the parliamentary elections of July 22. The prime minister was hoping to widen the base of support of the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisis or AKP) in the Kurdish-majority areas of southeastern Turkey. But this weak position drew accusations from opposition politicians of all stripes: they accused Erdogan of being reluctant to respond to the increased violence. But the recent spate of PKK attacks in southeast Turkey, combined with increasing public pressure, has forcedErdogan to respond to the attacks on Turkish troops. The local media have also been agitating for action. The Turkish public is being treated almost daily to footage of grieving mothers throwing themselves onto their sons’ flag-draped coffins at funerals that have at times turned into mass demonstrations against the PKK.

Turkish nervousness vis-à-vis developments in northern Iraq extend beyond the PKK bases. Ankara is concerned that the far-reaching autonomy enjoyed by the Kurdish region in northern Iraq since 2003 could fan separatist sentiments among its own large Kurdish population. Iraqi Kurds are already taking measures to change the demographic composition of the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Many of the measures involve Kurdish returnees who were displaced by the late Saddam, who adopted policies to ‘Arabize’ the multi-ethnic city. The residents of Kirkuk are expected to vote in a referendum in November on whether or not the city should become part of the autonomous Kurdish region. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution has set a deadline of December 2007 for the so-called “normalisation of the status” of Kirkuk. Increasing the city’s Kurdish population would guarantee a result favourable to Kurds, who do not hide their desire to make the wealthy city the capital of the Kurdish region. The Turkish government has, in line with the recommendations of the US’s Iraq Study Group, called for postponement of the referendum on the status of the city, which is also home to a substantial Turkmen minority, who are ethnically related to the Turks.

US president George W. Bush has emphasised in public that sending troops to Iraq would not be in Turkey’s best interest. If anything, the truth of the matter is that the escalating crisis over the PKK’s activities in northern Iraq has highlighted the thick fog of contradictions that has lately descended on US and Turkish relations. Ankara has become increasingly impatient over the inaction of the US and the Kurdish regional government to curb the PKK’s activities. This feeling was expressed by Erdogan before the parliamentary vote. “We can no longer tolerate the fact that the United States and the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq have done nothing against the PKK and still want to prevent us from attacking PKK camps in northern Iraq ourselves,” Erdogansaid. “If this means that relations with the United States will suffer, then that is something we will have to accept. We are prepared to pay the price.”

Ankara’s frustration with the US extends beyond America’s inaction towards the PKK. Relations between the two longstanding allies have recently got much worse. On October 10 the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee voted by 27 to 21 to pass a resolution labelling the killing in 1915 of some 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman state as a “genocide.” Turkey rejects this characterisation and points out that many ethnic Turks and Kurds also perished in clashes at the time. Ankara has also called for a joint committee of historians to be set up to look into the “Armenian question”. Congress is scheduled to vote on the resolution later this month. If it is adopted (which is almost certain), the draft resolution could open the door for compensation demands by descendants of the Armenian victims. It would also pave the way for similar allegations of genocide by the Young Turks against the Greek populations in the Pontus region, the southeastern Black Sea provinces of the Ottoman sultanate, and the Assyrians of the Hakkari region in southeastern Anatolia and the Urumia region of northwestern Iran.

General Buyukanit has already warned in public that “military relations between Turkey and the United States will never be the same.” Opposition parties have also been calling on the government to take drastic measures to bring pressure to bear on the Americans. For instance, the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetci Hareket Partisi or MHP), has already demanded that the government shut down the US’s air-base at Incirlik in southern Turkey and to close the country’s border crossings to Iraq. Such actions would seriously complicate the re-supply efforts of US troops in Iraq. Some 70 percent of total re-supply cargo destined for US troops in Iraq passes through Incirlik, while at least a quarter of the gasoline (petrol) supply of the US army in Iraq is brought via tanker-trucks from Turkey. Alternate routes, mainly through western and southern Iraq from Jordan and Kuwait, are fraught with various dangers.

Yet closing the border is perilous because it could also impose a heavy economic cost on Turkey itself. It could wreck the thriving cross-border trade that has helped to revitalise the regional economy in insurgency-ridden southeastern Turkey over the past four years. Goods passing through the Habur border-crossing alone are estimated at more than US$ 10 billion a year. The US invasion of Iraq has set off an economic boom in this region, whose fortunes were badly affected by the UN trade embargo against Iraq, which lasted thirteen years. During the embargo the region’s economy stagnated as the cross-border flow of goods was limited to the smuggling of crude oil and other contraband goods, such as cigarettes, out of Iraq. An economic slowdown in the region, with attendant high unemployment rate, could prove to be a boon for the PKK, which would absorb many disenchanted and unemployed youths into its ranks.

Alarmed by the possibility of a Turkish invasion of its territory, the Iraqi government has urged Ankara to refrain from military action and give diplomacy a chance. Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki called on Ankara to allow more time for a tripartite security committee made up of Iraqi, Turkish and American officials to resolve the PKK issue. Vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi also visited Ankarabefore the vote to meet with Erdogan and other Turkish officials. The two countries signed a security agreement in September that provides for bilateral cooperation to combat PKK violence. But the agreement denied Turkey the right to cross into Iraq in cases of hot pursuit of guerrillas.

On October 21, after a meeting between the Iraqi prime minister and his national security team, Maliki’s office issued a statement which condemned the PKK and said that the Iraqi government has “taken important steps in relation to the activities of the PKK, which the government regards as terrorist actions.” Maliki had earlier proposed joint action with the Turkish army to crack down on the PKK. Yet the Iraqi government has limited options in dealing with the PKK rebels. For one thing, the Iraqi armed forces, which cannot even keep Baghdad safe, do not have the resources or manpower to mount such a counter-insurgency campaign against hardened guerrilla-fighters in difficult terrain. For another, the Iraqi central government holds virtually no sway in the Kurdish-administered north, which is controlled by Kurdish militia units, the peshmerga, loyal to the autonomous Kurdish regional government.

The pleas from Baghdad to restrain the PKK have so far fallen on deaf ears among the Kurdish leaders of northern Iraq. In fact, Iraqi Kurds, who briefly fought the PKK rebels at Turkey’s behest in the 1990s, have grown increasingly sympathetic to the aspirations of their fellow Kurds in Turkey and are not in the mood to engage in military action designed to rid northern Iraq of the PKK. Even if Iraq’s Kurdish leaders, who have so far allowed the PKK rebels to roam and amass weapons freely in northern Iraq, were to decide to move against the PKK, their peshmerga forces are stretched thin, with major units deployed to assist the Iraqi central government’s forces in counter-insurgency activities in Baghdad and Mosul, to the north of the Iraqi capital. The autonomous Kurdish regional government’s call for a “direct dialogue with Ankara on all issues of common interest or concern, including the PKK,” has been rejected by Turkey. Deputy prime minister Cemil Cicek was quoted by Zaman newspaper as saying: “We don’t talk with Iraqi Kurdish groups. Our interlocutor is the Iraqi government in Baghdad … Northern Iraq is part of Iraq” (October 19, 2007). A ceasefire offer by the PKK was totally rejected on October 23 by Turkey. Speaking at a joint press conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, in Baghdad, Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan said that ceasefires are “possible between states and regular forces. The problem here is that we are dealing with a terrorist organisation.”

Much as Erdogan hopes not to have to use the authority, it is likely that he will find himself compelled to order a military action the next time the PKK launches a spectacular attack. There are a number of courses of military action available to his government. Short of a full-scale invasion to a line about 40 kilometres (approximately 25 miles) deep into Iraqi territory, which would enable Turkey to set up a buffer security zone in northern Iraq to prevent further PKK raids into its territory, Turkish troops could stage a limited incursion to wipe out PKK bases in northern Iraq, and then withdraw to the Turkish border. Another possibility would be to build up the Turkish army’s presence along the border and launch intense air-strikes to destroy PKK camps and centres in northernIraq.

But military might rarely prevails in cases of protracted guerrilla warfare. Turkey has already tried to defeat the PKK rebels militarily for nearly a quarter of a century, to no avail. Turkish troops have made 24 limited military forays into northern Iraq since 1984. Most PKK rear bases and training camps are located in the rugged Qandil Mountains deep inside northern Iraq. By the time a Turkish ground offensive reaches them, it is very likely that the highly mobile PKK guerrillas will have slipped away, or melted into the sympathetic local population. The invading Turkish troops might also find themselves confronted by the battle-hardened, well-armed and disciplined Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces. Moreover, the efficiency of air-strikes in counter-insurgency campaigns is highly doubtful. Finally, a military operation inside Iraq would plunge the only stable part of Iraq into a whirlpool of chaos and bloodshed, with grave consequences that could engulf the entire region, including Syria and Iran, because of increased trans-boundary Kurdish nationalism.

For now, the sabre-rattling from Ankara seems to be intended mainly to increase the pressure on the US to act against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. “We have expectations mainly from the US more than Iraq,” Erdogan said in an interview with the privateKanal 24 TV channel on October 19. “We want the coalition forces – mainly the US – to take a step here.” But if they fail to persuade the Americans to wipe out the PKK presence in northern Iraq, Turkish officials could find themselves imprisoned by their own belligerent rhetoric. Turkey could be the next country to plunge into the Iraq quagmire.

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