Turkish Military Presses for Offensive Against Militant Bases in Iraq
In what has become an annual rite of spring, Turkey has been massing troops and tanks along its border with Iraq and threatening to invade its neighbor in an effort to go after the guerillas of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), whose bases are located in the mountains of northern Iraq.
The pressure to launch an attack into Iraq continued to build following a June 4 raid in eastern Turkey, in which suspected PKK militants stormed a paramilitary police compound near the city of Tunceli. At least seven Turkish paramilitary police officers and one militant were killed during the attack, according to reports. The same day, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told visiting European Union officials that Ankara reserved the "right to take measures against terrorist activities directed at us from northern Iraq."
Turkey's previous military buildups on the Iraqi border were mostly viewed as saber rattling, but analysts see something different and more worrisome this time. As PKK attacks against security forces inside Turkey continue unabated, the military leadership in Ankara has in recent weeks forcefully stated its desire to go after the guerilla group's operational bases in Iraq. Meanwhile, a May 22 suicide bombing in Ankara -- in which six people died and that has been linked to the PKK -- has turned public opinion in favor of an Iraq invasion.
Domestic political considerations are also having an impact. With Turkey's July 22 parliamentary elections fast approaching, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- already under pressure from the military for being seen as overly Islamist -- does not want to appear as being soft on terrorism and national security issues. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Put all together, observers here see all the ingredients for a dangerous political and military crisis that could lead to wider regional instability and might put a serious strain on Ankara's relations with both Baghdad and Washington.
"We clearly are at an impasse. This thing has the potential to spin out of control, since the channels of communication between Turkey and the United States are not what they were," says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The current crisis is the culmination of mounting tensions connected to the PKK issue. Since calling off a unilateral ceasefire in 2004, the PKK has been involved in a growing number of attacks against forces in Turkey's predominantly-Kurdish southeast, while several bombings in Turkish cities have been blamed on the group. Although the violence has not reached the level of the 1980's and 90's, when the separatist PKK and Turkey fought a bloody war that cost the lives of more than 30,000, dozens of Turkish soldiers have been killed since the ceasefire's end. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
At an April 12 press conference, Turkey's top general, the hawkish Yasar Buyukanit, said a cross-border operation into Iraq, where an estimated 4,000 PKK fighters are camped out, would be "useful" and "necessary." Speaking to reporters at an Istanbul security conference on May 31, Buyukanit again expressed his support for action against the PKK. "As soldiers we are ready," the general said.
"The military feels that it has to strike against the PKK. [A military operation] is now seen as something that must be done," says Suat Kiniklioglu, director of the German Marshall Fund's office in Turkey. "Patience has run out, while the European Union and the United States relationship restraints that had been working for the last few years have been pushed to the back."
Adds Kiniklioglu: "It's only a matter of time, although increasingly the tendency is to leave it for after the elections."
The mounting tension has also been accompanied by what many see as a serious deterioration in Ankara's relationship with both the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq and with the United States.
Turkish officials have long cast a worried eye on the Iraqi Kurds' moves towards greater autonomy, fearing that such a move would set a dangerous example for Turkey's own Kurdish population. Ankara has also been concerned about Iraqi Kurdish efforts to incorporate the oil-rich city of Kirkuk into the Kurdish region, which Turkey feels would upset the regional balance of power and put Iraqi Kurdistan further along the path to independence.
In recent months, Turkish and Kurdish officials have exchanged barbed comments. Speaking on Dubai's Al-Arabiya television network in early April, Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdish region, said continued Turkish efforts to intervene in the Kirkuk issue would invite retaliation. "Kirkuk is an Iraqi city with a Kurdish identity and Turkey has no right to interfere in the issue of Kirkuk. If it does, we will interfere in the issue of Diyarbakir and other cities," Barzani said, referring to a major Kurdish city in Turkey's southeast that has long been the site of political unrest.
Upping the ante, Turkish Chief of Staff Buyukanit, in his talk with reporters on May 31, implied that the Iraqi Kurdish government, as embodied by Barzani, could itself be targeted by any military operation.
"The targets will be set by the political authorities. Are we just going in to fight the PKK or will there be something with Barzani as well?" the general said.
At the same time, there has been mounting frustration in Turkey over the failure of US forces in Iraq to take any military action against the PKK, causing a considerable amount of tension between the two NATO allies. When two American F-16 fighter jets based in Iraq recently strayed into Turkish airspace, both the military and government reacted strongly, with Turkey taking the unusual step of handing the US Embassy a diplomatic note on the incident. In an ensuing interview on Turkish television, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a tough note, saying Turkey would "react differently" if something similar happened again.
Although the Bush administration last year appointed former Air Force general Joseph Ralston to act as a mediator among the Americans, Turks and Iraqi Kurds regarding the PKK issue, many analysts believe the dialogue has produced few results. "The Turkish people believe the Americans are supporting the PKK, which is how people thought of the EU in the 1990's. That is the perception that is dominating peoples' minds right now," says Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Ankara's Middle East Technical University.
"We have an increasing tendency towards anti-Americanism in Turkey. The more soldiers that are killed by the PKK and the more America does nothing against the PKK, the more that anti-Americanism will rise," he says.
The CSIS's Aliriza insists that Washington is aware of Turkey's concerns regarding the PKK, but that those concerns are only part of what's on US officials' very full diplomatic plate. "The United States understands Turkey's concerns, but it is caught in a very difficult position of trying to reconcile what is irreconcilable," he says. "It has its long-standing relationship with Ankara on one side, and on the other side it has its very important tactical relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, who are opposed to a Turkish intervention in Iraq."
Washington is reluctant to disturb the tenuous stability in northern Iraq, and has already expressed its opposition to any Turkish military operation. "We certainly don't think unilateral military action from Turkey or anyplace else would solve anything," Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, told reporters in Washington.
The debate over cross-border intervention is taking place in the midst of a tense election period in Turkey. Early elections were called for July 22 as a result of the constitutional crisis surrounding the recent (invalidated) presidential election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
With polls showing the AKP heading for another decisive victory on election day, some political analysts suggest that the military's threat to invade Iraq has two objectives: to pressure Iraqi and American officials into taking action, and to paint the AKP government as indecisive on terrorism.
"The question of invading Iraq is now a political issue. Everybody is trying to maneuver around it politically. It's no longer just a military question," says Henri Barkey, an expert on Turkey at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University and a former State Department official. "The idea is to make life very, very difficult for the government. There is a real power struggle going on right now and anything that will weaken the government is game," Barkey said.
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