Northern Iraq Instead of Syria: Turkey’s New Target?

ANKARA — With attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) multiplying and spreading to a larger number of Turkish provinces, Ankara is under increasing pressure by nationalistic parties to take tougher measures against Kurdish activism, including a full-blown land incursion by the Turkish armed forces into northern Iraq.

Since June, the PKK has changed its operating tactics, from hit-and-run attacks against security outposts to entering urban areas in an extended geographical area. The focus is still the southeastern part of the country, where the majority of the population is composed of ethnic Kurds, but eastern and western provinces such as Van and Izmir have also been targeted.

Indicative of these tactical changes is the occupation in late July of Semdinli, a town in the Hakkari province in southeast Turkey bordering Iraq and Syria, which the PKK held for three weeks. Regular troops eventually forced the rebels to withdraw, with heavy losses on both sides.

The Arab Spring has provided a new source of inspiration for the PKK, according to Idris Bal, a member of parliament with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and an expert on domestic terrorism.

The PKK sees an opportunity to foment popular rebellion in Kurdish-dominated regions of Turkey, with a view to creating a state which it can govern, Bal said.

The occupation of Semdinli was aimed at sending a message to the world that things are spiraling out of control in Turkey, he added.

But the Kurdish insurgents’ all-out approach is not a totally new concept in this internal struggle, which began 28 years ago and has cost 40,000 lives so far. The PKK’s former leader, Abdullah Ocalan, tried it in the 1990s, with limited success.

Ocalan, in jail for life since 1999, still influences the PKK’s strategy. In a recent declaration, he predicted that 2012 would be the “final year” in the all-out Kurdish rebellion, which resumed in 2010, after seven years of relative calm.

Since 2003, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tried to find a peaceful solution to the Kurdish problem, against fierce opposition by the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

A series of secret talks between Turkey’s national security agency (MIT) and PKK representatives were held in 2010 in Oslo, facilitated by the British intelligence services. But the process was abandoned as the result of a premature leak of the discussions.

The response of the state was to intensify bombing of PKK bases in northern Iraq, through air force raids. This produced some results, until the end of December, when military jets killed 34 young ethnic Kurds at Uludere, near the Turkish-Iraqi border, who were mistaken for PKK members.

The mass killing triggered nationwide indignation and inflamed anti-government sentiment in the south and east of the country.

“Parliament should have worked in fall 2011 on a package to provide basic rights and freedoms to Kurds in order to reach a democratic solution,” said Mehmet Ozcan, chairman of the Ankara Strategy Institute, a think-tank in the Turkish capital.

“The time was ripe for reform before Uludere, but now it’s the PKK that has the psychological upper hand,” said Ozcan, who believes it is not realistic to expect an end to terror unless a democratic process addressing the needs of the Kurds is put in place.

The evolution of the Syrian revolt seems, however, to be a stronger reason for concern among Turkish politicians and the military. The withdrawal of the Syrian security forces from the border regions with Turkey and Iraq has left a vacuum which is being exploited by the Syrian Kurdish minority and the PKK alike.

Although they remained initially loyal to Bashar al Assad’s regime, Syria’s Kurds have more recently unveiled aims for independence in a post-Assad scenario, through the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a sister organization to the PKK.

The current lack of Syrian authority in the region also facilitates the mobility of PKK fighters between northern Iraq, Syria and southeastern Turkey.

Meanwhile, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the Kurdistan Region, an autonomous province in northern Iraq bordering Turkey, has made it clear that he won’t enter into an armed clash with the PKK.

Although Barzani claims he is playing a conciliatory role between the PKK and Ankara, the KRG has become the host of Kurdish separatist movements for the region.

Large Kurdish communities live in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, totaling 30 to 38 million people, depending on whether national data or international estimates are used. Turkey accounts for half of the total. Another two million live in the diaspora, mostly in Armenia and northern Europe. The Kurds are considered to be the world’s largest ethnic minority without their own country.

The current political instability in the Middle East has revived aspirations for a Pan-Kurdish state, which could emerge as a new Muslim regional power, alongside Egypt, Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

The prospect gives Ankara the jitters. Stuck with domestic unrest, a potential armed intervention in Syria, blocked for now by Washington, and deteriorating relations with Iran, Erdogan’s government is prudent but jumpy. In recent weeks, it has repeatedly accused both Damascus and Tehran of providing support to the PKK and has expressed disappointment over Barzani’s passivity.

Meanwhile, the CHP and MHP opposition parties and nationalistic public opinion are criticizing the prime minister for his foreign policy and lukewarm stance towards the PKK. Last week, voices of observers close to the ruling party warned the government that contemplating military intervention in Syria, with or without American consent, was the wrong approach.

Instead, they said, launching a full-scale, deep and lasting land forces operation into northern Iraq would be a better use of resources and soldiers’ lives in order to put an end to the Kurdish separatist violence.

Over dinner late last week with a closed group of journalists in Ankara, Deputy PM Bulent Arinc said Turkey was pondering an operation in the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, where the PKK headquarters are located. The government has already obtained authorization from parliament.

This will, however, need the approval of Washington, which still retains policy rights over Iraq, and collaboration with U.S. military and intelligence, which can provide information on PKK movements.

This may not be so simple to obtain. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had become suspicious in recent months of Turkey’s reliability as an ally. Such suspicions were borne out last week, when Arinc admitted that the national security agency, MIT, had been sharing information with the Iranian intelligence agency, SAVAK. The information had been provided by American Predators, a type of drone.

“The challenge for Turkey, however, is to conduct this sweeping operation without alienating the local population living in scattered villages in Kandil, as well as other Kurds who have nothing to do with the violence,” says Abdullah Bozkurt, a political analyst and expert on the government’s decision-making.

The Semdinli experience confirms that the PKK would not hesitate to infiltrate residential areas and use them as shields against attacks. Ankara is concerned that incidents as in Uludere, or Afghan- and Pakistan-like blunders by the American military, would seriously tarnish Turkey’s reputation as a Muslim model for democracy.

(Inter Press Service)