Analysis: Tensions on the Turkish-Iraqi border

If the Turks increase attacks against PKK bases in northern Iraq, a Kurdish counterstrike can dangerously escalate.

Turkey Iraq border (photo credit: Zohreh Soleimani/Bloomberg)
Turkey Iraq border
(photo credit: Zohreh Soleimani/Bloomberg)
The monthlong cease-fire declared unilaterally by the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) for the Ramadan period is set to finally expire this week. As it does so, the prospects for renewed violence are very real.
PKK guerrillas, based in their stronghold in the Qandil mountain range in northern Iraq, have carried out a series of successful operations since abandoning their earlier ceasefire this year.
The most daring of these was a mine blast along the Kirkuk- Ceyhan oil pipeline on July 21. The explosion claimed two lives, temporarily halted the flow of oil along the strategic pipeline, and served notice of the PKK’s undimmed abilities to strike at their Turkish enemy.
The “Triangle” border area between Iraq, Turkey and Iran is becoming one of the region’s most volatile flashpoints. More than 80 Turkish soldiers have been killed by the PKK this year.
Turkish Interior Minister Besir Atalay was in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish zone in northern Iraq, this week, to discuss the issue of the PKK with Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan, for his part, has promised that rebels will “drown in their own blood.”
PKK leaders have told this writer that Turkey is seeking to prepare the diplomatic ground for a major incursion against the movement’s stronghold in the mountains. They fear that Erdogan seeks to impose what they call a “Sri Lankan-style” solution on his Kurdish enemies.
What can be stated with some certainty is that any initial hopes aroused by Erdogan’s initiatives toward the Kurds have been dissipated.
The AKP leader, unencumbered by Turkish secular nationalism’s traditional suspicion of any manifestation of Kurdish identity, last year promised reforms to end the second-class citizen status of Turkey’s Kurds. To encourage this process, the PKK announced a formal ceasefire in April 2009.
The Turkish military ignored the declaration of cease-fire. Instead, it demanded that the PKK unconditionally disarm and surrender. The promised reforms failed to materialize. Turkey’s AKP government struck at the legal pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, arresting a number of its representatives on suspicion of links to the PKK.
151 Kurdish politicians and activists, including eight elected mayors, are on trial in southeast Turkey on suspicion of links to the PKK.
Kurdish disillusionment regarding the possibility of peaceful reform in Turkey is leading to increased support for the guerrillas across the border.
The PKK, meanwhile, is seeking to maintain pressure on the Turkish government, without providing a pretext for a large military incursion into the mountain area.
Founded in 1978, the PKK began its armed campaign against the Turkish authorities in 1984.
The Turkish military responded with ferocity. In the 1984-99 period, around 30,000 people lost their lives in the conflict.
The capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 led to a sharp downturn in the movement’s fortunes.
Turkish governments failed, however, to address Kurdish grievances following the capture of Ocalan. As a result, from its bases in the impenetrable Qandil mountains, the PKK slowly rebuilt itself.
The current situation in Qandil is volatile in the extreme. Turkish aerial attacks have recommenced.
But the Turkish air force is not the only peril with which the inhabitants of the Qandil area must contend. Iranian bombardment and incursions are also a common occurrence.
The PKK’s “sister organization” among the Iranian Kurds – PJAK – is also headquartered in Qandil and uses the area as its base for operations against the Iranian armed forces and Revolutionary Guards.
Iranian news media reported that the Iranian security forces killed 30 Kurdish fighters in an incursion last weekend, though the Kurds dismissed this claim.
But the threat is real enough.
PKK leader Murat Karayilan, in an interview with this writer, noted a recent visit by Iranian First Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi to Turkey, in which, in a joint statement with Prime Minister Erdogan, he announced the launching of a joint strategy to develop economic relations.
Karayilan suggested that such a strategy would help Iran bypass the economic embargo against it. It would also serve as a basis for joint action against the twin Kurdish guerrilla organizations present in the Qandil mountains.
Erdogan is currently preparing for general elections in 2011. Any moves toward reconciliation with the Kurds are unlikely to go down well with his support base.
Offering a freer hand to the military to strike at the PKK in Qandil, by contrast, could serve to burnish Erdogan’s credentials in the eyes of secular nationalists.
The latter suspect that the AKP is seeking to destroy the power of the Turkish army.
A controlled escalation against the PKK might help to lessen such suspicions – which have been raised further in recent weeks because of the arrest of a number of senior military officers for allegedly planning a coup against the AKP government.
This scenario is not yet a certainty.
The Kurdish issue in southeast Turkey is ultimately a political matter, not a military one. As such, it cannot be solved by military means.
Nevertheless, Erdogan’s stated aims suggest that in the coming months, the prospect is for increased Turkish cross-border attacks into the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq.
This would inevitably bring in its wake a counter-escalation in PKK actions in southeast Turkey and perhaps beyond.
Policy-makers across the region will be carefully observing developments.
Jonathan Spyer’s full interview with PKK leader Murat Kurayilan will be published later this month.