Turkey's intervention in northern Iraq

Turkish flagThe decision by the Turkish Grand National Assembly to authorise the Turkish Government to deploy troops in Northern Iraq has certainly created a general sense of unease about the possibility of a full scale conflict between Turkey and Iraq. However, the decision, while certainly based on legitimate concerns, serves several wider purposes that are perhaps not immediately apparent.

That the decision is based on real fears is beyond doubt. From 1984 until 1999, Turkey fought a bitter and bloody civil war in its south east provinces against the forces of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The campaign was devastating. In addition to 30,000 deaths, the conflict saw many tens of thousands of villages cleared and bomb attacks in major cities and tourist destinations.

It is for this reason that the steady increase in PKK activities in the past few years has been greeted with such concern by Turkey. From their bases in northern Iraq they have launched a number of audacious attacks in recent months, culminating with the ambush of a Turkish military patrol that left thirteen Turkish soldiers dead. In the face of this increase in violence, and remembering the grim consequences of the earlier struggle against the PKK, many in Turkey have been clamouring for Turkey to launch a full scale operation to wipe out PKK positions across the border, where as many as 3,000 guerrillas are based.

While concerns about PKK activity in Northern Iraq have existed for several years, Turkey has thus far refrained from taking any action. One of the key reasons for restraint has been pressure from Washington. Any Turkish incursion in Iraq would destabilize the one part of Iraq that has remained relatively secure. For the past four years, US officials have worked to try to keep Ankara out of northern Iraq. On the whole, this has been relatively successful – not least of all because they have managed to prevent the Iraqi Kurds from declaring independence, a move that many believe would also have precipitated a Turkish intervention.

However, Washington’s influence over the Turkish Government is not quite what it once was. For start, the US invasion and occupation of Iraq has been extremely unpopular in Turkey. Matters were not helped by the fact that US officials claimed that Turkey’s resistance to the use of its territory for a northern invasion was little more than an attempt to extort money from Washington. Since then, polls have pointed to a significant rise in anti-American sentiment across the board.

The tipping point, however, has come with recent moves by the US Congress to recognize the Armenian Genocide. This is an issue that Turkey takes particularly seriously, as cases elsewhere have shown, and despite the importance of the United States, there is little evidence to suggest that Turkish anger will be less muted in this instance. Ankara has already recalled its ambassador to Washington for consultations in response to a decision by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives to put the matter to the House as a whole.

Looking ahead, there are now real concerns that it will make it through the House as a whole, let alone the Senate. Retaliation of some sort should be expected. As Prime Minister Erdogan noted, Turkey is prepared to ‘play hardball’ on this issue. In this context, it is perhaps less than coincidental that the question of a Turkish intervention is northern Iraq has come to the fore at this moment. Knowing US sensitivities about a Turkish intervention over the issue, one cannot discount the argument that, in part, Turkish actions are deliberately designed to put pressure on the White House.

But there also appears to be an important domestic component to the authorization. As noted, the Turkish public, as well as the opposition parties, are in favour of taking a tough stance. However, so too is the military. Tensions between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the armed forces have been running high this year over the nomination, and subsequent appointment, of Abdullah Gul as president. Much of what we are seeing now could also be part of a wider process of bridge-building between the government and the military. In effect, the politicians are deliberately recognizing the primacy of the military on matters of national security and showing that they are willing to allow the armed forces to act, if needs be.

In many ways, the current developments are far from unexpected. Given past experience, Turkey is deeply concerned about the steady rise in PKK activity over recent months. However, it should also be recognized that much of what we are seeing now is also the product of other, seemingly unrelated factors. In responding to domestic pressures, Ankara will no doubt be hoping that the decision to authorize a deployment will be enough to persuade Iraq to take action against the PKK and the US to develop a more pragmatic reading of Ottoman history.

Dr James Ker-Lindsay
Associate Fellow, RUSI 

The views expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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