Edition 40 Volume 5 - November 01, 2024

Turkey and the Kurds

Everybody's Kurdish problem -   Soner Cagaptay

Washington should be concerned because the PKK disrupts an otherwise good relationship between America's two allies in the region.

Turkey, the PKK and regional stability -   Ahmet O. Evin

Under the circumstances, Ankara has no option but to act decisively.

The smell of war -   Safa A. Hussein

The diplomatic option means negotiating for Iraqi Kurd assistance against the PKK.

Is it only about the PKK? -   Khaled Salih

This complex issue includes a deep conflict in Turkey between civilians and the military and an ambition for regional domination.

Everybody's Kurdish problem
 Soner Cagaptay

On November 5, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet US President George W. Bush to discuss likely action against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The recent spike in terror attacks on Turkey by the PKK from northern Iraq and subsequent Turkish shelling have heightened expectations that Turkey could invade northern Iraq to battle the PKK. It is evident that the Iraqi Kurds are not on board with Turkey on the PKK issue and probably would not provide assistance to Turkey as they did in the 1990s. This stance poses a great risk to the Iraqi Kurds and their relationship with Turkey, as well as to US interests in the region. The Turks, the Americans and the Iraqi Kurds have an interest in resolving this problem. Here is why and how.

In the 1990s, Turkey was able to inflict severe damage on the PKK with the help of Iraq's Kurds. At the end of the Gulf War, the US and Turkey created a safe haven for the Iraqi Kurds in the northern part of the country. American planes regularly flew out of the Incirlik base in southern Turkey, providing an umbrella of American protection against Saddam. Not surprisingly, the Iraqi Kurds prospered under these circumstances, especially as Turkey provided them with protection and a lifeline to the outside world. Subsequently, Massoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), even obtained Turkish passports. In return, the KDP and the PUK provided Turkey with valuable assistance, including Peshmerga fighters and intelligence in its fight against the PKK.

The relationship between the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey has soured since then. Today, the PKK is based in areas of northern Iraq controlled by the KDP and the PUK. The Iraqi Kurds also reject Turkish action against the PKK.

Why have the Iraqi Kurds changed behavior? One explanation is that the KDP and PUK do not need Turkey as they used to. The Iraqi Kurds' participation in the Iraq war against Saddam has made them America's best allies in Iraq. They are acutely aware of this fact and consequently seem to think that they can do without Turkey's support in the short term. Therefore, they do not see the need for action against the PKK in order to win Turkish hearts. Rather, Iraqi Kurds appear to consider the PKK as a medium term bargaining chip vis-a-vis Turkey.

There are, indeed, a number of issues that the Iraqi Kurds seem eager to negotiate with Turkey. First, the Kurds need Turkey to look favorably upon the political future of their government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, should Iraq fall apart. Second, the Iraqi Kurds would want to bring Turkey to a compromise on the future of the city of Kirkuk. This city holds perhaps as much as 40 percent of Iraq's oil, and is contested between its Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab inhabitants. Needless to say, at this stage, Turkey is against exclusive Kurdish control of Kirkuk.

The Iraqi Kurds seem to view the PKK as a bargaining chip that they can hand over to Turkey in future negotiations. This strategy is not necessarily wise. First of all, the rising rate of casualties in Turkey as a result of continued PKK attacks has created massive resentment in Turkey toward the Iraqi Kurds. Secondly, the strategy is based on the assumption that Turkey will wait on the PKK issue until the Iraqi Kurds are ready to bargain. This entire calculus could collapse should Turkey lose patience over terror attacks, which will likely happen soon.

The Iraqi Kurds, indeed, have a problem. One day Americans will leave Iraq, and the Iraqi Kurds will need to have neighborly relations with Turkey. The longer the PKK stalemate festers, though, the more animosity will build in Turkey toward Iraqi Kurds.

Washington should be concerned about the issue as well, because the PKK disrupts an otherwise good relationship between America's two allies in the region. However, so long as they feel that they have America's unconditional friendship, and that therefore they do not need Turkey, Iraqi Kurds will avoid action against the PKK. This means the sword to cut the Gordion knot is in America's hands. Only when Washington makes Iraqi Kurdish action against the PKK a condition for its continued friendship with the KDP and PUK, will these two parties act against the PKK. If not, the Kurdish calculus that the PKK is a medium term bargaining chip vis-a-vis Turkey will hold. This stance, however, poses a great danger to Washington. Turkey is on the brink of an incursion into northern Iraq, which would destabilize the only area of Iraq that receives much publicity for its political stability. This is why Washington should intervene in the stalemate and bring the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey into a working partnership, a la 1990s.

One possible step for the Iraqi Kurds is to shut down the PKK's logistics lifeline, and provide Turkey with intelligence on the organization's posture. These steps would be seen as friendly gestures toward Turkey and pave the way for renewed friendship between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. The KDP and the PUK have a Kurdish problem, namely, the PKK. If that problem is not taken care of, then the KDP and the PUK will have a Turkish problem. At the same time, without Iraqi Kurdish assistance, Turkey might get bogged down in northern Iraq. The U.S. will face an even larger problem: conflict between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds. All sides have much to benefit from action against the PKK, and much to lose from continued PKK attacks from northern Iraq into Turkey.- Published 1/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of "Islam, Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is a Turk?"

Turkey, the PKK and regional stability
 Ahmet O. Evin

The simmering tensions in the wake of Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorism in Turkey reached a boiling point after the recent ambushes killing scores of Turkish troops. The current crisis not only poses a serious danger of spreading further into the region, drawing other parties from the broader neighborhood into the fray, but it poses a very serious challenge to relations between Turkey and the US that have been deteriorating for some time. Even as the Iraq security talks are being held in Istanbul, with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice participating after having had meetings in Ankara, it is still not clear whether Washington's and Ankara's positions have adequately converged to initiate meaningful cooperation on the issue. Convincing Turkish public opinion that Turkey's allies are lending support remains another formidable challenge.

Turkey's frustrations stem from the fact that the PKK has found a hospitable environment in northern Iraq to mount its operations into Turkey. Ankara's position, oversimplified, is that if neither the Iraqi government nor the US as the occupying power is doing anything to prevent the PKK from causing harm across the border to Turkey, then Turkey will undertake to protect its own citizens from PKK terror by mounting cross-border military operations into Iraq. Ankara, moreover, sees its own war on terrorism as part of the global war on terror that has been so loudly trumpeted by the Bush administration and, hence, expects active support from the US.

The US, as well as most EU member states, have declared the PKK a terrorist organization, although little active support has been extended to prevent attacks on Turkey. The Bush administration's priority is to achieve a modicum of stability in Iraq where the security situation has been deteriorating. Moreover, US forces in Iraq are too overextended to be able to take on additional responsibilities in the north. In short, what the US sees as the only stable area in Iraq is in effect the area from which Turkey's security is threatened. Under the circumstances, Turkish public opinion increasingly blames the US for destabilizing Turkey's own backyard while the US fears Turkish operations might lead to a new source of conflict and instability in the region.

These diverging priorities have increased domestic tensions in Turkey. The US is increasingly being viewed as an adversary rather than an ally and is blamed for deliberately supporting the formation of an independent Kurdistan as a prelude to instigating the division of Turkey itself. With such conspiracy theories gaining currency, rising nationalism brings with it the danger of a pronounced ethnic division that Turkey did not experience even during the 15-year conflict in the southeast with the PKK that ended in 1999 with the capture (with US assistance) of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

Under the circumstances, Ankara has no option but to act decisively. "The time for rhetoric is over," Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told Rice bluntly, just at about the same time General Joseph Ralston, until recently the US special envoy for countering the PKK, admitted in an interview across the Atlantic that the US had not done enough to support Turkey in this respect. Two questions remain outstanding at the moment: one is the extent of Turkish military intervention, if no other effective means are found to contain PKK terrorism by the time Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets President George W. Bush in Washington on Monday. The second, which flows from the first, is whether the current crisis could be resolved without (or before) it rigs into the agenda of a host of other regional security threats, such as nuclear proliferation, further ethnic divisions spreading beyond Iraq, and escalating regional conflicts dragging in other major international actors into the region.

If this worst scenario is avoided (as it should be), then it is not inconceivable that Turkey might be able to play a positive role in paving the way to stability, its main objective in the region. The current crisis has tested both Turkey's determination and its ability to use restraint until all other options are exhausted. It has also led to more rigorous thinking in decision-making and policy circles. What new approaches might Turkey adopt once the crisis is hopefully over and the tensions are cooled?

The first and foremost would be a serious effort to recognize and promote the citizenship and affinity of its Kurdish citizens. By all counts, support for the PKK is not widespread among Turkey's Kurds, who would rather be the citizens of the most stable and prosperous country in the neighborhood. Second, given that there is no effective government in Baghdad and there is not likely to be one in the foreseeable future, Turkey can begin thinking of the Iraqi Kurdish north as a client to be protected. Turkey, after all, can provide the only reliable window to the world for that region. It was the effective protector of the Kurdish north after the Gulf war, a crucial point that is largely forgotten now. Finally, the Turkish government as well as policy circles have to learn how to express themselves and communicate in an effective way so that Turkey's policies are understood in the international community.- Published 1/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ahmet O. Evin is founding dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Sabanci University. He is a professor of political science at Sabanci and is a member of the board of directors of Istanbul Policy Center.

The smell of war
 Safa A. Hussein

An Iraqi friend in Turkey said recently that he can smell war out there. This comes after the latest attack by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), killing 12 soldiers near a town about 20 miles inside of the Turkish border. Turkey has moved about 100,000 troops with heavy equipment to its borders with Iraq. The Turkish parliament, on October 17, authorized a military raid into Iraq in an attempt to eliminate bases used by Kurdish militants.

The extraordinary media coverage and focus on PKK activities and Turkish military deployments has contributed to generating tremendous public pressure on the Turkish government to stage an offensive in the northern Iraqi safe haven for the PKK. Many questions arise. Is this only about PKK attacks, or are there other factors behind the crisis? What options does Turkey have? If there were a Turkish intervention, how big would it be? What would be its objectives?

Of course, the PKK with its history of terrorist activities and its announced objective of establishing a Kurdish state on Turkish soil is considered a major threat to Turkey's national security. It incites extensive aggressive nationalist feelings among Turks. But some additional important factors are relevant as well.

Firstly, Turkish domestic politics. A number of recent attacks, including a May 22 suicide bombing in Ankara and a June 10 bombing in Istanbul, have played directly into the hands of the military and members of the ultra-secularist political opposition, who are using the PKK issue to show the Turkish electorate that the ruling AK Party is unable to contain the Kurdish threat.

Secondly, the geopolitical issue. The Turks oppose the creation of an independent Kurdish state (or highly autonomous Kurdish region) in Iraq because they feel it would encourage Kurdish separatism in Turkey. About 15 million Kurds live in Turkey, comprising 20 percent of its population and making them the second largest ethnic group. This number forms roughly 55 percent of the world's Kurds.

Then too, the geopolitical fallout from the demise of Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad is beginning to crystallize in northern Iraq. "A vacuum was formed in northern Iraq and that vacuum became practically a camp for terrorist activity," stated then Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. This situation is similar in some ways to the vacuum created in 1991 after the defeat of Saddam in the first Gulf war, which generated a four-year-long civil war among the Iraqi Kurds, with both Iran and Turkey intervening.

Thirdly, the Iraqi Kurdish regional government hasn't acted against the PKK. The KRG may want to oppose PKK actions, but may not wish to risk moving toward civil war among the Kurds. Perhaps more important, the Iraqi Kurdish leaders see the crisis as presenting them with some valuable bargaining power vis-a-vis Turkey.

Thus, Turkey has only two options: military and diplomatic. Practically speaking, the diplomatic option means negotiating for Iraqi Kurd assistance against the PKK. This could include preventing the PKK from using Iraqi soil, arresting its leaders, and an end to logistical support and all PKK activities inside Iraq. But negotiations would not be easy; the Iraqi Kurds would demand a high price from Ankara: formal recognition of the Kurdish-administered north of Iraq as part of the federal state of Iraq and of the KRG's representatives. It might also include withdrawing Turkish opposition to including oil-rich Kirkuk as part of the Kurdish self-rule region. Thus far, Turkey has been bargaining overtly with the Baghdad government alone.

The military option may take the form of a major or limited incursion. A major incursion is not likely. True, Turkey has an army of half a million troops equipped with NATO-standard arms and backed by air support. The PKK, meanwhile, is estimated to have some 4,000 lightly-armed fighters in Iraq. But its base in the harsh, mountainous terrain of northern Iraq denies the Turks the capacity to maximize their superiority. If there were a conflict, it would most likely be fought on the guerrillas' terms. Also, a major incursion could destabilize the neighboring section of Turkey, where an estimated 10 million Kurds live. It would also disrupt Turkish trade with Iraq, which amounts to more than five billion dollars. Such an incursion at this time would be opposed by Iran, the European Union and the United States.

A limited incursion is more likely. Turkish troops may move into Iraq to create buffer zones and forward operating bases against Kurdish attacks and to pressure the KRG when the need arises. There was a precedent for such a move during the 1990s. In addition, Turkey may launch "hot pursuit" operations inside Iraq. Such a limited incursion would serve as a signal to both Kurds and Americans that there are limits beyond which Turkey is not prepared to go. It would also put Turkish troops in position to exercise control in the region in the event that the situation in Iraq gets completely out of hand.- Published 1/11/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. He served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force. Currently he works in the Iraqi National Security Council.

Is it only about the PKK?
 Khaled Salih

Is the latest crisis in Turkey really only about the PKK, a friend recently asked ironically. A reasonable answer would be both yes and no. This is certainly an issue with special complexities of its own, including a deep conflict in Turkey between civilians and the military and an ambition for regional domination.

In recent weeks, the military confrontation between the PKK and the Turkish military has reached a new level. Inside Turkey, demonstrations, talk-shows, extensive media coverage and a general sense of war have led Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to publicly express concerns that some commentators were acting as "public servants working for provocation".

The question is, what are they provoking? If Erdogan's fear is provocation of a war with the PKK, it is already a fact. Erdogan said it has become "inevitable for Turkey to start a more intense military process against terrorism. The operations in the region are under way."

If the fear is to provoke a wider and more extensive war in which fighting the PKK is only one element or a pretext, as Kurdish commentators and politicians suspect, then the parallel is not the Turkish military's resolve to demonstrate strength--as it did in 1998 against Syria, leading to the expulsion of expel PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Rather, one has to look at a previous Turkish military adventure: the invasion and occupation of Northern Cyprus in 1974, in which the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee (between Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom) was invoked. Turkey's rationale then was to use its right to take unilateral military action ostensibly to restore constitutional order and ensure Cyprus' independence and sovereignty. Instead, Turkey ended up dividing the island, occupying 37 percent of its territory and displacing 160,000 Greek Cypriots and 50,000 Turkish Cypriots.

Provoking a wider war for regional domination implies that some people within the Turkish political and military establishments would like to see an incursion into the Kurdistan region in Iraq that ends with a longer-term invasion and occupation. If Iraq disintegrates entirely, the final stage of occupation would then be extended to annexation.

Many would say that we have not seen any justification in Turkish propaganda preparing for a second scenario that leads in that direction. However, the Turkish chief of the general staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, made the point clearly at the Turkish War Academies a month ago when he said, "Iraq is rapidly moving toward a confederation. Division in Iraq is very close. An independent state in the north of Iraq would be not only a political threat but also a security threat. Turkey must look at the north of Iraq from a political, military and psychological perspective."

It is fully possible that if an incursion takes place we will hear two arguments during the subsequent stages of invasion, occupation and annexation, in addition to the Kurdistan region being portrayed as a political, security, military and psychological threat to the Turkish Republic. One is the idea that Mosul Wilayet (Vilayet in Turkish) should be returned to Turkey because no Turkish government has ever accepted the 1926 Anglo-Turkish Agreement under which Mosul became part of Iraq based on a decision reached by the League of Nations.

The other is that anticipated tensions between Turkmens in the Kirkuk region and the Kurds resulting from a Turkish military adventure will be cited by the Turkish military and the "public servants of provocation" to justify Turkish occupation (and if possible also annexation) of Kirkuk to protect their kinsmen.

No one has better expressed Erdogan's fear regarding a wider war than President of the Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani, who said recently, "The continuous, direct threats of Turkey against the Kurdistan region ... have created a doubt, leading us close to the conviction that exactly this is the aim. The Kurdistan region is the target."

Erdogan has also hinted, equally strongly, that the "public servants of the provocation" might want the moderate Islamist government not only to be embarrassed but also to face a third round of brinkmanship with the military--the first two being confrontations over the election of the president in 2024 in which the governing AK party ultimately gained clear-cut democratic support.

If Erdogan fails to prevent a massive incursion into the Kurdistan region by almost 100,000 Turkish troops to combat 3,000 to 4,000 PKK fighters, he will not only put Turkey in an extremely difficult position with the Kurds in Iraq, the United States, NATO, the European Union and the United Nations, but he will also risk the military winning this third round of brinkmanship in the struggle by the civilian government to control the military. At that point, EU attempts to promote democracy and peaceful conflict resolution and to coordinate European foreign policy with Turkey will face a severe challenge.- Published 1/11/2007 bitterlemons-international.org

Khaled Salih is an independent analyst and consultant based in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. He is former senior advisor to the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

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