Tensions mount at Iraq-Turkey border

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul last week summoned the U.S. and Iraqi ambassadors to warn them that his country would act in self-defense if effective measures were not taken to end the presence in northern Iraq of the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers Party.

The party was responsible for the killing of 14 Turkish soldiers and policemen the previous weekend. The basically cautious government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), is making what may prove to be its last attempt to make the U.S. administration live up to its declaration that it opposes the PKK, as it does any other terrorist organization.

The support given by the U.S. administration for Israel’s massive assault on Lebanon — and the understanding shown by the rest of the G-8 — has compounded Erdogan’s difficulty in containing domestic pressure to disregard U.S. and European Union warnings against a cross-border operation to root out PKK bases in northern Iraq.

Accused of indecision by the opposition and pressed by his own supporters, Erdogan has to respond to the demand for national self-assertion, in spite of the misgivings expressed privately by some of his ministers.

Upsetting the United States and world financial institutions would be a more serious matter. The publicity given to the message delivered to the U.S. ambassador and to a “political directive” to the general staff to set in hand preparations for an assault on the PKK on both sides of the border is for the moment a substitute for a major cross-border incursion.

However, if the security situation does not improve — and particularly if the PKK were to succeed in mounting a spectacular attack in a metropolitan area — military action could not be delayed indefinitely. The three opposition parties represented in parliament — the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the center-right True Path (DYP) and Motherland (ANAP) parties — have hastened to assure Erdogan of their support for a cross-border operation. Although more cautious voices are also heard — from a small group of liberal columnists — Erdogan and the AKP cannot disregard majority opinion as they prepare for presidential elections in May next year and then for legislative elections the following November.

Effective action against the PKK is needed not only to safeguard internal security but also to control the political situation in Turkey’s southeastern provinces inhabited by the Kurds. As long as local people, and the politicians for whom they vote, fear the PKK (often more than they fear the security forces), the government will find it difficult to rely on elected local authorities in its efforts to end Kurdish disaffection through liberalization and regional aid.

According to Turkish authorities, in the 18 months to the end of June, PKK militants killed 148 members of the armed forces, 17 policemen, 18 village guards and 72 civilians. The number of injured exceeded 1,000. PKK losses amounted to 286 militants killed and 15 captured.

Gul is reported to have presented the U.S. ambassador with evidence of the presence in northern Iraq of some 150 leading members of the PKK and of the infiltration of men and military supplies into Turkey.

The PKK relies largely on long-range rifles and mines detonated from a distance for its hit-and-run attacks. Most of these weapons are said to come from former Iraqi army stocks.

Turkish patrols cross the Iraqi border frequently in pursuit of the PKK and have observation posts in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, a major operation would be needed to strike at the PKK headquarters on Qandil mountain (near the border with Iran) and Makhmur camp nearer the Turkish border.

After his meeting with Gul, the ambassador said that, rather than send troops into northern Iraq, Turkey should rely on the “three-way mechanism” — the process of consultation between Turkey, the Iraqi government and U.S. authorities in Iraq — that was established after earlier Turkish complaints.

However, after the last meeting of the three parties, arrest warrants were issued against the PKK leadership but no action was taken to implement them. Turkish authorities realize that U.S. forces are in no position to take action against the PKK in northern Iraq and that the Kurdish regional government will have to do so.

They also know that, contrary to conspiracy theories, Washington would be happy to see the back of the PKK but that the Iraqi Kurdish leaders may see some use in the PKK in their conflict of interest with Turkey, which opposes their demand for quasi-independence and their claim to Kirkuk and its oilfields. The Turks hope that the declaration of a “shared vision,” issued after Gul’s recent visit to Washington, means that they carry more weight in U.S. calculations than the Iraqi Kurds, for all the help that the latter gave (and the Turks refused) in ousting Saddam Hussein.

The Erdogan government has to respond to domestic demands for effective action to stop the PKK from using northern Iraq as a sanctuary from which it can attack targets inside Turkey. Although unwilling to send a significant force into northern Iraq, it will have to authorize a large-scale cross-border operation (by land, air or both) if terrorist incidents continue and Washington does not force the Kurdish regional government to eject the PKK.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com