Not Done With The Kurds
By M K Bhadrakumar
11 June, 2007
discussing Russia's military-education system recently, prominent military
thinker and former deputy defense minister Vitaly Shlykov said, "We
have a completely distorted understanding of military professionalism.
the armed forces, first and foremost, means a solid liberal-arts education,"
Shlykov explained. A good soldier must be rooted well in "purely
civilian disciplines, foreign languages and history, as well as tactics".
Shlykov could as well have
been describing the role model of the Turkish Pashas. The officer corps
of the Turkish armed forces is highly professional by Shlykov's yardstick.
That is what keeps the international community guessing about the Turkish
Army's intentions toward northern Iraq.
Any decision by the Turkish
Army to move into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish terrorists operating
out of that region will not be based on security considerations alone.
The Pashas know Mesopotamia and its history, Kurds and their violent
past, Kurdistan's tangled mountains and Turkey's complicated geopolitics.
They will act cautiously.
But they also know first
things come first. They know a like-minded government in power in Ankara
is a prerequisite. Last Friday, the Turkish General Staff issued an
extraordinary statement virtually calling on the people to come out
and hold mass rallies over the issue of terrorism in Turkey. It said,
"The Turkish Armed Forces expects the Turkish nation to show its
mass reflex to resist these terrorist acts."
The statement condemned the
critics of "Kemalism", who include core supporters of the
pro-Islamic ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). "Turkey
has been subjected to a view that its national and unitary structure
was outdated. Our nation has to be aware of this dangerous approach.
It is evident that the escalating acts of terror are the clear signs
of such ideas and the distorted mentalities of those who support these
ideas directly or indirectly," the statement said.
The military expects the
people to take to the streets, just as they did recently under the banner
of "secularism", and demonstrate against the government. A
cat-and-mouse game is under way. The military says it is ready to act
against the Kurdish terrorists based in northern Iraq. The government
says it and the military speak with one mind. But the military says
it needs governmental approval for crossing the border into northern
Iraq, and the government says such approval will follow a written request
from the military.
Meanwhile, Friday's military
statement taps into popular opinion. Parliament is in recess, as Turkey
prepares for polls on July 22. The government says it has no plans to
convene Parliament, while the constitution requires parliamentary approval
for any military operations on foreign soil.
The AKP hopes to win a renewed
mandate to form the government. The "Kemalist" camp looks
insipid and the rightist opposition remains in disarray. Except if nationalist
sentiments rise to a crescendo, the AKP's ideology-based platform seems
to appeal to the electorate. The military's statement on Friday raises
the ante. The AKP cannot jeopardize Western backing by ordering the
military to cross into Iraq.
Political exigencies require
the AKP to ensure the "Kemalists" do not ride the nationalist
wave, especially the huge groundswell of "anti-Americanism".
The AKP leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has to reiterate
his commitment to fight terrorism, and demand that the US should act
against Kurdish terrorism bleeding Turkey. The bottom line seems to
be that any major Turkish military operation in Iraq is unlikely before
the parliamentary polls. Consolidation of political power in Ankara
is the overriding priority of all protagonists at the moment.
However, there is the inherent
danger that the force of events on the ground may overtake politicians.
There is indeed a new ground situation. A Kurdish terrorist wave is
once again sweeping across Turkey, reminiscent of the scale of violence
10 years ago. The Turkish military is taking heavy casualties. Popular
feelings are running high all over Anatolia and tremendous anger is
building up within the Turkish military.
On the other hand, what can
the military do? It could launch "hot pursuit" attacks inside
Iraq, which fall short of a full-fledged military operation. But this
is already happening. Turkish troop concentration in border areas is
a recurring feature every year with the advent of spring when cross-border
movement by Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants begins. This year
too, from April onward, the border region has been declared a special
security zone. Turkish artillery has routinely pounded suspected positions
of PKK guerrillas inside Iraq, and the air force has been conducting
reconnaissance missions. Not infrequently, "hot pursuit" missions
During 1983-98 when PKK terrorism
was rampant, the Turkish military conducted cross-border operations
inside Iraq about 36 times. Some operations were of a large scale, involving
air force and heavy armor. In 1997, troops at corps strength of up to
50,000 crossed the border and went 200 kilometers into Iraqi territory.
But circumstances were different
then. Saddam Hussein connived in the muzzling of Kurdish irredentist
nationalism. The US was Turkey's staunch North Atlantic Treaty Organization
ally. Iraqi Kurdish leaders, who depended on handouts from Ankara, collaborated.
And Iraq wasn't the cynosure of attention in world politics - let alone
Kurdistan's remote mountains.
Now, circumstances have changed.
There is no effective government in Baghdad. Kurdish nationalism is
boiling. Iraqi Kurdish leaders oppose any crackdown on their fellow
Kurds belonging to the PKK. A de facto Kurdish government is functioning
in northern Iraq. The leadership of Massoud Barzani has powerful backers
in the US and Israel. Most important, US priorities are vastly different
from the Cold War era, or the 1990s.
Turkey refused to cooperate
with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The strain persists, in spite
of appearances. Meanwhile, the Kurdish militia has proved to be a valuable
ally of the US. Kurdistan has since become the staging ground for US
and Israeli intelligence's covert operations against Iran. It is a strategic
asset in the event of any US military strike against Iran.
Over and above all, the fabulous
oilfields of Kirkuk beckon US and Israeli business interests. Evidently,
it is in the interests of the US and Israel that the region must remain
an oasis of stability. Israel, in particular, would gain immensely if
Kurdistan gained full independence.
Also, Kurdish nationalism
can be a potent weapon for Washington's geostrategy. It modulates the
complex triangular equations involving Turkey, Iran and Syria. The United
States' ultimate intentions in Kurdistan remain obscure. Washington
keeps assuring Turkey of its sympathy in fighting terrorism but does
little to curb PKK activities. Barzani is diverting US arms supplies
to the PKK.
Turkey must wonder what could
be Washington's Plan B if the present "surge" in Iraq fails.
Washington is hinting at a "Korean model" of a "long
and enduring presence" in Iraq. The motives driving long-term US
ambitions in Iraq are understandable, but Turkey would worry if Washington's
plan of consolidating 14 "enduring bases" included bases in
Kurdistan, as that would only strengthen its security alliance with
the Kurds. The Kurdish media reported on US plans to open three huge
bases in Arbil, Duhok and Sulaymaniyah. When tensions began to rise
along the Turkish-Iraqi border recently, two US warplanes violated Turkish
airspace. US diplomacy is skilled in such balancing acts.
In short, the escalation
of PKK violence; Barzani's belligerence toward Turkey; the United States'
double standards toward Turkey's "war on terror" - these form
a puzzle that Turkey must figure out. One of Turkey's best-informed
editors, Oktay Eksi, wrote recently in the establishment daily Hurriyet,
"In short, we are playing a game whose beginning and end are known
to all, because there is no possibility Washington will green-light
Turkey conducting a military operation in northern Iraq, and our government
lacks the courage and political will to do so on its own." But
the alignments are not that straightforward, either.
A dozen knots tie the US
Army and the Turkish military, dating to doctrine that took its name
from the late US president Harry S Truman and which saw the US Congress
grant military and economic aid to Turkey and Greece.
The Turkish military would
feel disoriented if these close ties were snapped. A similar predicament
holds good for the Turkish political elite, including serious politicians
(both secular-minded "Kemalists" and "Islamists"),
powerful captains of industry and business, and even much of Turkey's
intelligentsia weaned on Western enlightenment. The elite in Ankara
and Istanbul would also calculate whether the vibrant Turkish economy
could withstand jolts from the International Monetary Fund; whether
the Turkish stock exchange or the Turkish lira would remain calm; and,
of course, whether Turkey could afford to forgo its highly profitable
US$10 billion border trade with northern Iraq.
Experience shows that a brigade-strength
military incursion into the 3.5-kilometer-broad swath of land where
Turkey already maintains half a dozen or so forward operating/fire bases
inside Iraq is something that the US (and the Iraqi Kurdish leadership)
could live with. The question, therefore, narrows down to what more
Turkey hopes to achieve.
From the Israel-Hezbollah
battle in Lebanon last year, it emerges that an organized guerrilla
force cannot be vanquished through a sweeping military operation. The
Associated Press quoted Turkish intelligence as saying that Iraqi Kurdish
militias were preparing defenses against a possible military incursion.
According to Turkish estimates, up to 3,800 PKK cadres are based inside
northern Iraq, while up to 2,300 operate inside Turkey. This is a substantial
Also in recent weeks, violence
has increased between Arabs and Kurds. Sunni insurgents aim to isolate
the city of Kirkuk, which faces a referendum to see whether it should
be incorporated in Iraqi Kurdistan. Groups aligned with al-Qaeda claimed
responsibility for the recent bombing of Sarha Bridge connecting Kirkuk
with Baghdad. Thus the danger that Turkey could be drawn into a protracted
Iraqi quagmire remains palpable. A Turkish-US confrontation would only
advance the cause of independent Kurdistan.
What can be expected, therefore,
is that in the coming weeks Turkey will continue to press Washington
to prevail on the Iraqi Kurdish leadership to restrain PKK activities.
Ankara has economic leverage over Iraqi Kurds. For its food and fuel,
consumer articles and construction materials, Iraqi Kurds depend on
Turkish supplies. Turkey provides 20% of Kurdistan's electricity and
water supplies. Kurdistan's economic dependency on Turkey will only
increase if the security situation within Iraq deteriorates further.
Turkey has succeeded in highlighting
that there is indeed a "red line" beyond which it won't brook
threats to its security. According to the editor-in-chief of the English-language
New Anatolian newspaper, Ilnur Cevik, Ankara may in effect have cornered
Barzani. Cevik said, "Iraqi Kurds are feeling the urgency to respond
to Ankara's demands to deal with the PKK." He said they are already
in urgent consultation with the Baghdad government "seeking ways
to appease Ankara without actually launching a military operation against
the PKK in their mountains".
Ankara will monitor how the
pressures on the Iraqi Kurds work between now and September, when Washington's
Iraq "surge" is due to be reviewed. A new government will
be in place in Ankara by then, and a president gets elected. This is
where Shlykov's remarks on military professionalism count.
The Pashas have a deep sense
of history. Theirs is not an army that marches on its stomach. They
are going to weigh carefully the pros and cons of a military intervention
in Iraq. A misstep could unravel the post-Ottoman settlement of the
early 1920s, which was Kemal Mustafa Ataturk's finest legacy to the
M K Bhadrakumar
served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than
29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98)
and to Turkey (1998-2001).
Copyright 2007 Asia Times
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