Turkey and Iraq: Threat of war
Turkey is on the edge of an incursion into northern Iraq to attack Kurdish rebel bases, but in the post-election period, Prime Minister's Erdogan's intentions remain unclear.


By Ben Judah in Istanbul for ISN Security Watch (31/07/07)

The threat of war hangs over the Qandil Mountains that mark the final Eastern borders of Turkey and the beginnings of Iraq.

To the south, the mountains are filled with the bases and fortifications of over an estimated 4,000 Kurdish rebels, from the extremist, and to this day Marxist-Leninist, Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Declared a terrorist organization by the EU and the US, the PKK has waged a bloody war against the Turkish state since 1982 in a conflict that has killed over 30,000 people.

Pushed over the border, they have found a safe haven beyond the reach of Ankara in the Qandil Mountains, just within Iraqi Kurdistan in the border areas uncontrolled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Irbil.

On the Turkish side, Ankara has been massing up to 200,000 troops overlooking the border regions. During the election campaign, which was in many ways a standoff between the powerful Turkish Army and civilian authority represented by the AKP, senior commanders made repeated calls to be allowed to stomp into the territory. Politicization of the issue and shelling followed.

A recent poll by the US-based Pew organization found that 72 percent of Turks thought terrorism to be their country's number one concern, placing heavy pressure on the government to act.

On 30 July, a Turkish soldier was killed and two others were injured in the border areas in clashes with the PKK. The day before, Egemen Bamis, a senior foreign policy advisor to Erdogan, warned of an incursion. "We are hoping we will not have to do it. We are hoping our allies will start doing something, but if they don't we don't have many options," he said in a statement, adding that Turkey would not "ask anyone permission."

PKK leader Murat Karaliyan recently said that the "date of the Turkish invasion draws near. And we are ready to defend ourselves."

The KRG, which controls the virtually independent Kurdish state that has emerged from the no-fly zones and the wreckage of Iraq, is adamant that it cannot control the PKK. Irbil Governor Nawzad Hadi Mawlood has been quoted as saying that "neither we nor they [the Turks] can evict the PKK of where they are in the mountains."

But there is much speculation in Turkey that Irbil is hoping to use the PKK as a bargaining chip for future negotiations. Turkish commentators and many nationalist and military political figures have gone as far as to say the KRG and the US have been arming the PKK.

The reality is unclear, apart from the fact that repeated Turkish and KRG attempts to dislodge the terrorist failed back in 1995 and 1997, and the PKK has undoubtedly reinforced itself since then.

The prospect of a powerful Iraqi Kurdistan
The causes behind what has brought Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan to such a tense situation stretch right back to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Turkey's refusal to allow US troops to invade from its territory led the Bush administration to fight the war without time for consideration of Turkish interests. Ankara, which axiomatically views the emergence of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan as a fundamental threat to its national security and territorial integrity, is living with a restless 13 million-strong and rising Kurdish minority concentrated in the country's eastern half.

The situation has become increasingly unfavorable for Ankara, as the KRG has emerged as America's strongest ally in Iraq, and its peshmerga crack-troops are the backbone of the Iraq army. The US has been relying on these troops to fight the insurgency and support the surge policy.

Once believing itself to have a special place in the White House as a key NATO member and Muslim democracy, Turkey now feels shunned and let down by America. The opinion polls reflect this, with a catastrophic fall in approval ratings for the US from over 50 percent before the war to just 9 percent today. Many Turks now see the US as the primary threat to its national security - way above Iran, Russia or Syria.

Turkey's greatest fear is that the KRG will continue to press for independence as Iraq disintegrates and succeed in grabbing the huge oil fields around the strategic cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. This would provide an emerging Kurdish state with the capital to be untouchable.

Jaafar el-Ahmar, a senior reporter covering Iraq for the Arabic language al-Hayat newspaper, sees this as an increasing likelihood. "The recent conference on federalism held in Irbil was attended exclusively by Shia Arabs and Kurds. It was a re-cementing of the alliance we have seen in operation against the Sunni Arabs, and the likely trade off will be the Kurds will get Kirkuk if they continue in their support for the Shia drive to control Baghdad. The Kirkuk issue will come to a head by the end of the summer and this will bring Turkey in," he told ISN Security Watch.

With the virtual independence of northern Iraq likely to cement itself, an upsurge of PKK terrorism coupled with an increasingly nationalist environment in which the Kurds will comprise 50 percent of the Turkish population by mid-century, the Turkish establishment has plenty to be concerned about. However, politics in Turkey itself has brought about the threat of a more imminent border war.

War drums for the election
Alev Er, former editor of Hurriyet, one of Turkey's leading newspapers, and a columnist for the popular Milliyet daily, sees the recent slide towards war as part of the fraught election campaign.

"The military was using it to go, 'look we are tougher on terror than the AKP,' the nationalists where using it to go, 'we are tough on the Kurds,' and it became a big issue in the run-up to the vote. The question is how they are going to play now," he told ISN Security Watch.

The use of the "Iraqi PKK" card in the election campaign saw tensions on the border flare to unprecedented levels. Press reports began to fly of the Turkish army assembling over 140,000 troops on the border, more than the US presence in the country, and on 18 July - just days before the election - the army fired hundreds of shells into the areas surrounding Zakho.

Alper Gormus, former editor of the weekly Turkish magazine Nokta, which the army forced to shut down after exposing plans for a coup d’etat in April, told ISN Security Watch how he thought such tensions would play out after the result.

"The AKP has won nearly 50 percent of the vote. This is a startling victory for civilian power and a crushing defeat for the military. Their hopes for an incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan are out of their hands now. Now it is up to Erdogan, since they are so weak. I think this result means war is off for now. The armed forces are too weak to force it."

Erdogan made various hawkish statements during the election campaign, and it is unclear how he thinks the move would help or hinder politically. With so much political capital he may be tempted to show he can be stronger on PKK terror than the army.

Diplomatic efforts
It is unlikely that any moves toward an incursion will be launched in the run-up to the presidential election. The main actors in Ankara all have their various interests at the stake now and can each use the Iraq card to suit them.

The AKP, due to the representative system, won more votes this time around but won fewer seats in parliament as a third party, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), passed the 10 percent threshold.

The bellicose rhetoric of the CHP means that Erdogan, if he is to gain broad cross-party support, may well end up compromising. A foreign war could suit all parties.

Erdogan's other option is to rely on the 24 Kurdish independents who could try and force him not to intervene in exchange for their support. However, this could be damaging politically and easily exploited by the CHP and the MHP.

The military - down, battered but not quite out of the game - can be expected to push more vociferously for war once it has stopped licking its wounds. The pressure may be too much for the AKP to bear.

Erdogan's recent statements suggest that if the planned arrival of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should fall through, the Turks may be forced to take the issues of the PKK, even Kirkuk and KRG independence in general, into their own hands.

Explosions on 2 July at PKK bases suggest Erdogan has not abandoned the issue in the post-election period. Hints that Tehran has been shelling Iraqi Kurdistan and is preparing for such an eventuality are ominous.

Facing this situation, the US should not continue to alienate its most important Muslim long-term strategic ally. Turkey matters, and will matter more in the future.