- in the turkish border town of Nusaybin policemen stand opposite Kurds protesting the possible turkish invasion of northern iraq on November 11, 2007.
Little noticed by an American public already overwhelmed by the complexities of a never-ending war in Iraq, on February 22, Turkish military forces invaded the most stable part of Iraq—its northern, US-created autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey’s stated intention: to eradicate the so-called “terrorist” forces of Turkey’s homegrown Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Previously invaded on at least two dozen occasions—1995 and 1997 operations involved as many as 30,000 and 50,000 troops respectively—northern Iraq is no stranger to Turkish military incursions. They began in the mid 1980s in response to PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan’s decision to turn political activism into a Marxist-inspired guerilla war in an attempt to counter Turkey’s massive cultural repression of its Kurdish population.
Aimed at creating an independent “Kurdish state within Turkey” for Turkey’s 15 million (plus or minus a few million, depending on the source) Kurds, the PKK’s fight turned a large part of southeastern Turkey—home to a majority of Turkey’s Kurdish population—into a warzone during the 1980s and ’90s. As the Turkish military flooded the rural southeast, destroying villages, and forcing hundreds of thousands of Kurds to urban areas, the force of the war died down. According to a 2005 Human Rights Watch report, there remain 378,000 internally displaced people—mainly Kurds—in Turkey. PKK fighters, which include many of the dislocated who have no alternative but to keep up the fight, continue to make deadly strikes within Turkey. They then flee across the Turkish-Iraqi border to camps located in the hinterlands of Qandil Mountain on Iraq’s border with Iran, part of a range that reaches north to the Turkish border. Estimates vary, but it has been reported that between 35,000 and 40,000 people—most of them Kurds—have been killed since the PKK began its fight for independence in 1984. Before his capture in 1999, Ocalan claimed he wanted to revert the PKK’s focus away from military and back to political activism.
As with most international conflicts, there is more than meets the eye in this most recent Turkish incursion—the first since the US ousted Saddam Hussein and took responsibility for the security of Iraq. While it can be said that PKK actions incited this latest foray, the question of ownership of Iraq’s third largest city of Kirkuk looms large in the minds not just of Iraqi Kurds, but of just about everyone else in the region, including Shiite factional leaders Moqtada al Sadr and Ayad Allawi, not to mention Iran and Syria. Since 2003, Kurds have been attempting to reclaim the oil-rich city that underwent a forced “Arabisation” program under Saddam’s regime. Turkey, as well as Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Arabs, fear that Kurdish control of Kirkuk—its surrounding territory accounts for 40 percent of Iraq’s oil production and 70 percent of its natural gas production—will lead to an independent Kurdish state. Adding to concerns is the fact that the Kurdistan Regional Government has begun to act independently, signing oil exploration contracts with international entities. December’s constitutionally mandated referendum, predicted to cede the control of Kirkuk to the semiautonomous government of Kurdistan, suffered a last minute six-month delay, much to the ire of Iraqi Kurds, whose leaders, as early as 2005, began to incorporate thousands of Kurdish militia members into the Iraqi military with the assumed intention of eventually taking control of Kirkuk and securing the borders of an independent Kurdistan.
There is also the issue of Turkey’s European Union accession, and the internal political sparring between Turkey’s moderate Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Turkey’s secular guardians, the military. Erdogan’s 2003 election campaign pledged to address the concerns of EU accession critics who, among other grievances, continue to cite Turkey’s poor human rights record and its lack of civilian control over its military as stumbling blocks to EU membership. Since sweeping the elections, not only has Erdogan been supportive of expanding Kurdish rights, he is reportedly the first Turkish leader to admit that Turkey has made “mistakes” in dealing with its Kurdish population. While endearing him to more pious Islamist Kurds, who have added to his electoral base, Erdogan’s courting of Turkey’s Kurds has irritated the watchful eye of Turkey’s military—already alarmed by his Islamist agenda in an avowedly secular society.
In a September 12, 2007 article for Time, former CIA agent Robert Baer hinted at the possibility of yet another coup taking place in Turkey, where, since 1960, the Turkish military has staged four “soft” coups against civilian governments. Baer stated that since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party swept last summer’s parliamentary elections, “the Turkish generals have been casting around for an excuse to take power.” Senior Editor Lorna Tychostup spoke with Baer by phone from Pakistan about Iraq, the Turkish incursion, and all things Kurdish. Baer’s latest book, The Devil You Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower, will be published in September by Crown.