October 25, 2007

Memo to Baghdad: The Turks are serious now

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Memo to Baghdad: The Turks are serious now
Threats nothing new, but Iraq's recent activities may have consequences

By Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst

Turkish threats to invade northern Iraq are nothing new. The last threat of attacks was in July, when Turkey amassed 140,000 troops along the border with Iraq. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurd separatist movement designated by the United States as a terrorist organization, stopped their cross-border operations from Iraq into Turkey, successfully warding off that attack. But in recent weeks, the PKK has restarted attacks into Turkish territory; last week alone PKK fighters killed a dozen Turkish soldiers and took eight more as captives

This may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The Turks were smart to go to Parliament and get a one-year approval for a military incursion into Iraq to end the PKK’s ability to use Iraq as a sanctuary haven. In light of increased border attacks and numerous Turkish deaths, it was an easy approval to get, but important politically. That vote sent a message to both Washington and Baghdad: The Turks are serious this time. We will no longer remain on the sidelines as PKK guerrillas, terrorists if you will; we will cross into Turkey from safe havens inside Iraq and kill our people.

The message was not lost in either capital. Washington has called for restraint on both sides and has pressured the Iraqi government to control the action of the PKK along the border. The PKK, probably at Iraqi urging, has declared a unilateral “ceasefire” with the Turks, but the Turks refuse to acknowledge a ceasefire with a terrorist organization.

The Iraqi government will have to take immediate steps to defuse the situation and the Turks appear unwilling to back down this time. What will happen to the American-Turkish relationship? Why does Washington lack the influence to restrain its NATO ally? It’s really simple because America’s relationship with Turkey has been fragile since at least 2003.

Turkey’s failure to honor a commitment to allow the U.S. to use Turkish territory to attack Iraqi forces from the north during the 2003 invasion caused weeks of delays getting necessary American troops into combat. The U.S. hoped to get forces into the Sunni triangle early on and neutralize the Sunni heartland. It was only after the Army’s 4th Infantry Division was off-loaded and spread out on Turkish highways en route to northern Iraq that Turkey reneged on its promise to Secretary of State Colin Powell. That forced the U.S. Army to recall the entire division, re-load it onto ships and ferry it through the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, around the Arabian Peninsula into the Persian Gulf, off-load it in Kuwait and move it overland into the battle from the south. These were not viewed in Washington as the actions of an ally.

That said, Turkey is now supporting our efforts in the region. American access to Turkish airspace and ports directly supports our troops in Iraq. The use of the Turkish port at Iskenderun provides an alternate to the use of the ports of al-Basra (Iraq) and Kuwait, which require convoys to pass through Shiite areas of southern Iraq, potentially vulnerable to attack if there is an escalation in the current U.S.-Iran relationship from rhetoric to violence. Use of Turkish airspace shortens the air bridge distance from European bases into the region. The U.S. probably needs it relationship with Turkey more than Turkey needs its relationship with the U.S.

What can Iraq do? First, it can cool off the rhetoric coming from the two senior Kurdish members of the government, President Jalal Talabani and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. Talabani’s statement “The handing over of PKK leaders to Turkey is a dream that will never be realized…” and Zebari’s “…the perfect solution is the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the borders” does not advance the issue.

Secondly, Iraq should attempt to control its borders better. Granted, the Iraqi government exercises little control over this mountainous and rugged part of the country and it is mostly outside the area populated by Iraq’s Kurds. The Iraqis need to assure the Turks that they are at least trying to prevent the cross-border raids. That will be difficult. Given Turkey’s history with its large Kurdish population (seven percent of the population), Ankara has reached the conclusion that its Kurds have designs on forming a greater independent Kurdish with the Kurds in Iraq. Although the Kurds in Iraq speak a distinctly different Kurdish dialect (as far apart as German and English), they only encourage Turkish concerns when they refer to the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq as “Southern Kurdistan.”

Baghdad, the message is clear. If you fail to try to stop the PKK from conducting cross border raids into Turkey, the Turkish army will.