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Turkey Not Done With The Kurds

By M K Bhadrakumar

11 June, 2007
Asia Times Online

While 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.

"Professionalism in 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 "Turkey has been subjected to a view that its national and unitary structure was outdated.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 are undertaken.

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 enemy.

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 Turkish nation.

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 Online Ltd.

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