Analysis: Turkish army on Iraqi border is just 'saber-rattling'

To date, the Turkish military has restricted its activity in the region to periodic shelling of PKK positions and limited cross-border raids.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Recent statements by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari concerning a buildup of Turkish troops along the country's border have heightened international fears that a Turkish military incursion into Iraq's northern Kurdish region is imminent. Zebari, in a press conference in Baghdad on July 9, said Turkey had 140,000 soldiers along the border and that his government stood "against any interference or breach of Iraqi sovereignty from neighboring states." Over the weekend, Zebari reiterated these concerns in a phone conversation with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, while indicating that Iraq was willing to hold multiparty talks on the presence of roughly 3,000 Kurdistan Worker Party, or PKK, guerrillas in northern Iraq. Turkey has threatened to move into Iraqi territory to conduct military operations against the PKK, a paramilitary organization responsible for numerous attacks against civilian and military targets in Turkey since 1984 that now operates with relative impunity out of the remote Kandil mountain region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Responding to an upsurge in PKK activity - this year has already seen the deaths of 67 Turkish soldiers and 110 rebels in sporadic fighting - Gul recently said on television, in reference to a possible Turkish military strike, "We have decided how to act, everything is clear. We know what to do and when to do it." To date, the Turkish military has restricted its activity in the region to periodic shelling of PKK positions and limited cross-border raids. But concern that such activity is a prelude to a larger invasion that could contribute to further instability across Iraq has led both US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to issue stern warnings to Gul not to act precipitously. But according to officials in Iraqi Kurdistan, the likelihood of a full-scale Turkish invasion is too remote to warrant such fears. Many see the troop buildup instead as a move by the military to influence domestic Turkish politics and to force a favorable outcome in Sunday's national election. "Turkish concerns are there and are genuine. The PKK is a menace," said Safeen Dizayee, a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two major parties comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government. "But much has been used for internal politics. It's saber-rattling rhetoric." Dizayee's skepticism of Turkish motives is widely shared among Iraqi Kurds. According to many, threatening to attack the PKK in northern Iraq has proven a powerful propaganda tool for the Turkish military, which is struggling to maintain influence in a government dominated by the Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party. With parliamentary elections set for Sunday, they argue, the military has pushed security concerns to the forefront in order to reinforce an image of the Justice and Development Party as indecisive and soft on terrorism and to benefit the nationalist and secular parties with which they have close ties. "Turkey is at a crossroads," said Bilal Wahab, an activist and writer in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. "The military is losing and the military wants something to regain influence. All they have is the PKK." Gareth Jenkins, a journalist in Istanbul and an expert on Turkish military affairs, agreed that the army was actively encouraging an image of itself as tough on terrorism as a means to retain influence in domestic politics. "The military has to position itself to maintain public prestige, which is its main source of political leverage, in case it needs it against the [Justice and Development Party] government. It cannot afford to lose this prestige," he said. Jenkins also said that by threatening to invade Iraq, the military hoped to pressure the Kurdistan Regional Government and the American military into taking an active role in dismantling PKK camps and offices there. "Turkey is rightly very frustrated that the US hasn't done anything against the PKK at all," he said. "There is a feeling in the military that if they take [the threat of invasion] seriously, then maybe they'll crack down a little on the PKK and put pressure on the Kurds." It remains unlikely, however, that the US - bogged down with a major insurgency to the south - would commit significant forces to battling the PKK. Tactically, a large-scale incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan would be a complicated and risky operation for the Turkish military. The mountainous region of northern Iraq where the PKK camps are located is notoriously difficult to control and could prove a nightmare for major counterinsurgency operations. "I don't believe Turkish troops would cross the border," said Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, governor of Erbil. "They will get lost. Kurdistan will turn into a graveyard for Turkish troops. Neither us [the Kurdistan Regional Government] nor they can evict the PKK because of where they are in the mountains." Wolfango Piccoli, a Turkey expert at the Eurasia Group, a political-risk consulting firm based in New York, agreed. The ease with which PKK forces could flee into the mountains when they see Turkish troops cross the border and regroup when these troops leave, he said, make an effective military incursion into Iraq nearly impossible. "From a logistical point of view, if Turkey decides to invade, it will only take a few days to cross the border. But militarily, they know an operation like that would make no sense." Piccoli said that a major PKK terrorist attack in western Turkey that caused significant causalities could force Turkey to invade, despite the difficulties of doing so. Barring such an attack, however, it is unlikely that Turkey will act before Sunday's elections. In order for the military to invade, the Turkish parliament would have to convene and pass a resolution granting their support. But with parliament in recess, it is unlikely any action will be taken. A change in power could see added pressure to pass such a resolution, Piccoli said, but the tactical realities will remain the same and will continue to discourage a Turkish invasion. "If the MHP [National Action Party, a nationalist, pro-military party] obtains seats in parliament, more pressure will be placed on passing the resolution allowing the Turkish military to carry out a cross-border incursion targeting the PKK's bases in northern Iraq. But there will probably only be lots of rhetoric from all the actors concerned and not much change on the ground," he said.