Turkey: Into the Iraq Quagmire?

ISTANBUL – Turkey is beefing up military preparedness against Iraq-based Kurdish rebels as a prelude to a possible cross-border incursion that is opposed by the United States, the European Union, and the Iraqi government.

Three Turkish provinces bordering Iraq have already been declared "special security" zones, limiting civilian access in the wake of an increase in bomb blasts in urban areas, including Ankara and Istanbul, and attacks on the military. Although no one has claimed responsibility, official and public condemnation goes to Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents slipping in from Iraq.

In addition, troops and military hardware are being amassed in the rugged and impoverished southeast, in the country’s Kurdish-populated areas.

The daily newspaper Milliyet also reported Saturday that Turkish troops were already shelling PKK rebels in frontier areas within Iraq.

So far, despite public outcry for a decisive move against an estimated 3,000 secessionist PKK rebels holed up in Iraq, there has been no major incursion.

But it has not been ruled out. And if it happens, it may have serious consequences for Turkey, Iraq, and beyond.

Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, chief of staff of Turkey’s powerful military, announced publicly in April that a cross-border operation is feasible – even advisable – if the government gives the go-ahead.

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, facing opposition from allies abroad and with national elections July 22, took a softer line and said decisive action is needed against Kurdish rebels within Turkey before venturing into those holed up in Iraq. He did not exclude an eventual military expedition into northern Iraq.

But the government of the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) may not have its way even if it has 353 members in the 550-seat parliament.

"Extra-parliamentary" power – particularly the military and public opinion – has its say, too, as evidenced recently. Erdogan, once a firebrand Islamist, withdrew his possible candidacy for the president following mass protests against the move, organized by the secular establishment.

Then, when the ruling-AKP-nominated Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, also a former Islamist, for the presidency, the military weighed in with a sudden midnight announcement seen as being against Gul’s candidacy. It warned against the encroachment of Islamic values in a secular republic.

Gul’s candidacy failed to obtain the required parliamentary majority, and a constitutional amendment is pending to have the people, rather than parliament, elect the next president.

This time, despite moderation by the prime minister, retired generals and opposition parties are appearing on TV talk shows, urging tough military action against PKK rebels, including a foray into Iraq.

Funerals for fallen soldiers often turn into protests against the government for its perceived soft stand.

In another move independent from the government, the military has urged "mass reaction" by the public against PKK terrorism. A series of public demonstrations are scheduled in coming days.

What is at stake?

While incursion into Iraq to chase PKK rebels will certainly calm the Turkish public, it may also backfire – and any apparent success may be more damaging in the long run, according to some analysts.

Prof. Sedat Laciner, head of the independent International Strategic Research Organization (ISRO), a Turkish think-tank, questioned the wisdom of a possible large-scale move into Iraq in a report that has become the subject of national debate.

"It may irreversibly push Turkey away from its domestic and foreign objectives [economic growth and EU membership], and events could get out of hand once they begin," he told IPS.

He said a cross-border operation could result in the death of a "few hundred terrorists," but also pave the way for recruitment of many more insurgents.

Laciner does not rule out the possibility that Turkish troops chasing PKK rebels may be opposed by Iraqi Kurds and even the U.S. military. The Kurds in Iraq are the main allies of the United States in a splintered Iraq: they sided with the U.S. invasion, while the Turkish parliament refused to let the U.S. open a front from its territory in the war against Saddam Hussein.

Turkey is irked that the United States, its erstwhile NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) ally for over 50 years and now with a dominant voice in Iraq, is not firm enough in pushing the central Iraqi government or the local Kurdish administration to move against PKK rebels.

Prof. Ilter Turan, former rector of Istanbul’s Bilgi University and a vice president of the International Political Science Association, told IPS that Turkey and the United States will find a way that could satisfy both parties, such as a limited military operation by Turkey.

According to Laciner, a full-scale Turkish military action in Iraq before the July 22 election is unlikely, but he expects Turkey to move in to establish a "buffer zone" before the summer is out, even if opposed by the United States.

The EU and the Iraqi government have also come out against any Turkish military involvement in Iraq beyond what is already known: the presence of some 2,000 Turkish troops on the Iraqi side of the border in an arrangement made with Saddam Hussein in 1997.

While the current focus is on PKK (listed by Turkey, the United States, and the EU as a terrorist organization), there exists a larger "Kurdish problem." Turkey, Syria, and Iran also have sizable Kurdish minorities and have experienced occasional flare-ups of ethnic tensions.

The Laciner report also says that if any Turkish military action goes beyond flushing out PKK rebels to involve fighting with Iraqi Kurds, it may lead to pan-Kurdish solidarity that could spell trouble for Turkey, Syria, and Iran, as well as Iraq. The main Turkish concern is that a strong Kurdish entity in northern Iraq, including an independent one in case of an Iraqi meltdown, could embolden its own Kurds to seek similar status.

Kurdish population in the region is estimated at 24 million, with 12 million in Turkey, 4 million in Iran, and 2 million in Syria. Iraqi Kurds claim a population of 5 million.

If there is a Turkish military foray into Iraq, Turkey’s powerful Business and Industry Association warned of serious economic consequences, while Moody’s Corporation said the country’s credit rating could take a tumble.

Laciner estimates that financial losses from a large-scale military operation, apart from military expenditure, could range from $1 billion to $10 billion, depending on the flight of foreign capital from Turkey.