ANKARA - Tension between Turkey, Iraq and the United States went up another
degree as Turkish artillery continued Wednesday and Thursday to shell civilian
targets and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) positions across its border, while
army helicopters launched several raids along the border separating Turkey from
The attacks, reported by state-controlled Anadolu and private Dogan Turkish
news agencies, and confirmed by western wires, seem to be the prelude to an
incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, a probable course of action by Ankara following
the approval the government received last week from the Turkish parliament.
Turkey's intent is to disrupt PKK's activities against Turkish military bases
and patrols in the region, which, according to Ankara, are organized with the
support of Iraqi Kurds, and the tolerance of Baghdad. The guerrilla conflict
has so far cost 30,000 lives in both camps.
It is estimated that 3,000 Turkish Kurds are engaged in PKK operations in the
zone. PKK, formed in 1984, was initially a movement aiming to form an independent
state, but has in recent years limited its claims to becoming an autonomous
region of Turkey.
Although PKK combatants consider themselves freedom fighters, they are listed
as terrorists by Turkey, the European Union and the US
Escalation in hostilities has increased since the beginning of the year, causing
dozens of deaths weekly, particularly amongst Turkish soldiers. The high command
of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has since the spring been putting Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdogan under pressure to authorize punitive actions on Iraqi soil
in order to dismantle the PKK.
In spite of the parliament's decision last week by 507 votes to 19 to let TSK
have its way, Erdogan is still reluctant to press the button. His preference
all along has been for a peaceful, negotiated solution involving the rebels,
Washington and Baghdad. But his hands are tied, and he may have to give in soon
under bellicose public and press opinion, and bitter feelings of officers.
The PM's strategy has so far been to loudly ask the Iraqi government to police
the PKK, and for the US to ensure that such policing take place. This is, of
course, a maneuver to appease his citizens, who, although they supported him
during the July legislative elections, nourish unconditional solidarity with
Meanwhile, a semi-promise to invade can give secularist TSK a sweet pill after
the appointment of Abdullah Gul as President of the republic, against fierce
opposition by the General Staff of the army. Gul and Erdogan are leaders of
the Islamist-origin Justice and Development (AK) Party.
Erdogan knows that Baghdad can, or is willing to, do very little. Northern
Iraq has since the end of the first Gulf war been outside its military jurisdiction,
as law enforcement and defense have become the prerogative of the local Kurdish
forces, the Peshmerga. The latter's affinities are closer to their autonomy-seeking
brothers from Turkey than to Iraq's central government, and their loyalty lies
with Massoud Barzani, president of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
Moreover, the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, is also a Kurd, born in Kelkan
and educated in Arbil and Kirkuk, which are located in the area targeted by
TSK. Talabani has since 1961 led various Kurdish separatist movements against
Baghdad. In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, he sided with the Iranians
in order to further his people's cause.
Although he has kept friendly relations with Turkey, having been protected
by former Turkish president Turgut Ozal when he was persecuted by Saddam Hussein,
it is unlikely that he will turn a blind eye to a Turkish invasion of his homeland.
At a press conference called on the weekend to calm down the Turkish government
after a PKK ambush that killed 12 TSK soldiers, Talabani threatened to close
down their bases and offices, but categorically refused to hand over any PKK
member to the Turks.
Barzani, who addressed the press conference along with Talabani, warned that
the regional administration will defend itself against any attack by its neighbor.
"We are not going to be caught up in the war between PKK and Turkey, but
if (Iraqi) Kurdistan is targeted, then we are going to defend our citizens,"
Barzani said. He had earlier secured a motion of 183 to 92 by the Iraqi national
assembly condemning Turkey's threat to cross over to northern Iraq.
What should be read between the lines, however, is that an invasion of Iraq
could prompt armed participation in the combat by other Iraqi guerrilla factions,
something that neither the Kurds, nor Baghdad, Ankara or Washington would like.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be particularly careful not to provoke
the Kurds, as his government's survival relies on their political support.
The hopes of Ankara for a solution that excludes an incursion have, as a result,
now been narrowed down to the White House's willingness, or ability, to exert
influence on the Iraqi leadership.
The White House is stuck in a series of dilemmas in its own right. The Iraqi
Kurds have been strong allies in the two wars staged against Saddam's regime,
and were given encouragement and promises of autonomy, and possibly independence.
They cannot be left in the cold if their territory is invaded.
But the US also needs its Turkish ally, albeit not as much as it did during
the Cold War. Turkey is right now useful because of a large base the US Army
has at Incirlik in south-eastern Turkey, which is vital for the logistics enabling
the occupation of Iraq, and which would be suitable for its evacuation.
This base has been leveraged by Erdogan to gain support from US President
Geroge W. Bush to counter the initiative by the US House of Representatives,
which resulted this month in a non-binding resolution acknowledging the massacre
of up to 1.5 million Armenians in 1915-1916 by the Ottoman Turks as genocide.
Bush's administration is therefore in a weaker negotiating position with Ankara
than it would have liked.
With the new, tougher sanctions by the US against Teheran announced Thursday,
and chilly relations with Damascus, Bush is likely to avoid frustrating Turkey
in a war against the PKK, while preserving the loyalty of Kurds, not only in
Iraq but also in Iran and Syria.
There are no verified figures about Kurdish populations, but international
agencies, researchers and the US Central Intelligence Agency estimate that
there could be as many as 37 million ethnic Kurds worldwide.
Of these, approximately 12 to 19 million live in Turkey, spread in 17 of the
country's 81 provinces, five to six million in Iraq, about as many in Iran,
and two to three million in Syria. The total contiguous territorial surface
inhabited by Kurds would be about 500,000 square kilometers, more than double
the size of the United Kingdom.
Any impulsive action by Turkey could set the clock for another time bomb in
the entire region.
(Inter Press Service)