Kurds and Turks: Will they or Won’t They?
Joshua Partlow has a good article in WaPo on the military friction at the Turkish-Iraqi border. It is based on interviews in Iraqi Kurdistan and with US military officials, however, and oddly lacks the perspective from Ankara.
I was just at an International Relations conference at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. I didn’t seek out any serving Turkish politicians or diplomats for comment, but did talk informally to academics and retired ambassadors and officials of wide experience. I didn’t advertise these conversations as interviews for a public article, however, so I won’t name them. Anyway, they can’t speak officially.
But here is what I heard them to say. First of all, the atmosphere in Ankara (Turkey’s capital) is of extreme anger about the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government giving safe haven to guerrillas of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). I mean livid.
It should be remembered that leftist PKK guerrillas kicked off a low intensity war that left 35,000 persons dead in Turkey since 1984. In other words, PKK’s campaign and the reaction to it have done 10 times more damage to Turkey than al-Qaeda has done to the United States. And, that is not even taking into account that Turkey is a fourth the size of the US, so you could say 40 times more. In the piece just linked, F. Stephen Larrabee estimates that “Since January 2006, PKK cross-border raids from safe havens in northern Iraq have led to roughly 600 deaths, many of them members of the Turkish security forces.”
In other words, the Kurdistan Regional Government is playing the Taliban to the PKK’s al-Qaeda, from the point of view of the Turkish government. It is harboring 5,000 PKK fighters. Turkey has a strong and impressive military tradition and does not take casualties in its security forces lightly. What is going on is clearly a casus belli.
It is quite amazing that the Bush administration has so far winked at this situation! Such a ‘war on terror.’
Turkey has a new chief of military staff, Yasar Buyukanit, who is a Kemalist hardliner. He has warned against creeping fundamentalism in Turkey and has minced no words about the PKK threat.
The alleged recent border incursion by several hundred Turkish troops 2 miles into Iraq in hot pursuit of PKK fighters probably did occur, virtually everyone I talked to said. One observer suggested that Turkey might thereby be attempting to ‘change the rules of engagement’ with the PKK over the border. Such incursions are also opportunities for intelligence gathering. Turkish special ops teams have penetrated deep into Iraqi Kurdistan on occasion.
One reason the border incursion was a surprise is that Prime Minister Rejep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party gets some support from Turkish Kurds. So why would he risk alienating them on the eve of an important election?
The order for the border incursion probably did not come from that high up. The Turkish commanders at the border have enough authority, I was told, to do a little hot pursuit like that without prior clearance if they feel it is important for military reasons.
So Erdogan probably wishes it hadn’t happened. Kurds in Turkey are disproportionately rural or of recent rural origins and are typically more religious than urban Turks. Since the AK Party has a mild religious coloration, it holds some attraction for them.
Erdogan’s rush to say that Turkey should deal with PKK guerrillas based in Turkish territory before it worries about those in Iraq was for the benefit of his Kurdish constituency. That sentiment clearly is not shared by Buyukanit and the Turkish military, which has a say in such matters under Turkey’s system of dual sovereignty, where the military is the ultimate guardian of the values of the republic and doesn’t care for the AK Party anyway. I think Partlow put too much emphasis on Erdogan’s statement, which was clearly a piece of electioneering and isn’t definitive in the Turkish system.
There was a recent bombing in Ankara that killed 14 persons, and in which PKK is suspected. It has denied responsibility. One retired Turkish diplomat said he accepted the recently advanced thesis that it was the work of a Turkish Maoist who is sympathetic to the PKK. Another observer found this charge hard to believe. Blaming a far-left Turk, however, would have the effect of reducing tensions with the Kurds, and would therefore serve Erdogan’s purposes. I have no way of knowing the reality.
I brought up with several observers my nightmare, that the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq will certainly annex Kirkuk later this year, and that there may be as a result clashes between the Kurds and the Turkmen minority. Iraqi Turkmen, some 800,000 strong, have been adopted by the Turks of Turkey as sort of little brothers. I can’t imagine the Turkish public standing for a massacre of Turkmen, and hundreds of thousands of people in the street could force Buyukanit to act decisively.
My colleagues universally agreed that the potential was there for an escalation of the crisis under such conditions. No one said I was exaggerating the risks. One former official who is an expatriate said that before he arrived in Ankara last week, he did not know just how angry people there were over this issue. He is now convinced that the situation is serious.
Partlow points out that if Turkey did take on the Iraqi Kurds over the haven they have given the PKK, the US would likely be forced to support Turkey, a NATO ally acting against a terrorist threat.
Partlow quotes Massoud Barzani as saying that Turkey has a problem with the existence of Kurds. This is a vast exaggeration. The status of Kurds in Turkey has substantially improved over the past two decades. Barzani neglected to mention the 35,000 dead in PKK’s dirty war, or that he is actively harboring 5,000 PKK guerrillas. He recently went so far as to imply that if Turkey intervened on the Kirkuk issue, it would result in terrorism in Diyarbakir (a city in Turkey’s eastern Anatolia). It was a shameful performance.
So I don’t think Partlow’s sanguine conclusions are justified. I think the situation in the north has entered a phase of continual crisis in which things could spiral out of control at any moment.
I continue to be just amazed that no one in authority in Iraq is taking any steps to try to avert such a crisis. I earlier suggested a partion of Kirkuk province before the referendum as a way of defusing the tensions. But it seems like that the referendum will be held in the whole province and that the whole of it will go to Kurdistan. Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul has said that this development would be a cause for war in and of itself.
The train wreck continues to unfold.