Turkey’s Threat to Raid Iraq

Could another front soon open in the Iraqi war? The sabers are rattling after Turkey's parliament voted overwhelmingly to authorize a raid into North Iraq to crush insurgents from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in response to a terror campaign that has left over 80 Turkish security personnel dead in Turkey's South East this year. Within hours of the vote, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish-controlled Northern region of Iraq, warned that if Turkey went ahead with a military incursion his people would be "absolutely ready to defend ourselves against invasion." 

Yet even as Turkish tanks, special force troops and helicopters have massed along the country's border with Iraq, it's still an open question as to whether Ankara will actually send in the tanks. Washington, for one, desperately doesn't want them to. The Kurdish North has hitherto been one of the few relatively secure areas of Iraq, and the Kurds are Washington's most loyal allies in the country—and indeed the whole region. And even though the Iraqi Kurds are no friends of the PKK, the idea of the Kurds' ancient enemy, Turkey, mounting a unilateral military action against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan is unthinkable. Clashes between two U.S. allies—NATO member Turkey and Iraqi Kurds—would be a diplomatic nightmare for Washington.

No surprise, then, that George Bush has been pulling out all the stops to please the Turks. This week, at Turkey's request, the White House mounted a full court press to sink a Congressional resolution calling killings of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 a genocide. The resolution had been passed in the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee and appeared to have the necessary Democratic backing to win passage in the full House. But on Wednesday a group of prominent Democrats withdrew their support under pressure from the administration, which had warned that angry Turks might shut down cross-border supplies of vital materiel to Coalition forces in Iraq. "Our responsibility, the bottom line, is to do what is right for our national security, well being of our troops," explained Rep. Bob Wexler as he pulled his backing from the resolution. The Turks are "vitally important to our effort in Iraq," added Rep. John Murtha. "We need every ally we can get." 

Will the Turks return the favor? Officially, Ankara has always insisted that the issue of the Armenian genocide resolution and their planned raid on the PKK are separate issues. And even as support for the genocide resolution crumbled under the administration's onslaught, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted that the raid could still go ahead. "Our parliament has expressed the nation's will," he said shortly after fielding a series of phone calls from worried regional leaders such as Iraqi prime minister Nuri al Maliki and EU foreign policy czar Javier Solana. "The opinion of others does not matter."

At the same time, more cautious voices in Ankara realize that a full-scale military incursion into Iraq is "exactly what the PKK wants," according to one Ankara-based Western diplomat not authorized to speak on the record. "The military wants to squash the PKK's remaining bases, but they know they cannot get into a shooting war with the [Iraqi Kurdish security forces]." Support for the PKK among Turkey's own 14-million strong Kurdish population has waned after a bloody and ultimately futile 20-year insurgency which left 35,000 dead. But it could rekindle if Turkey's raid on the PKK spirals out of control and spreads to a wider Turk-Kurd war along the border area. Such a conflict—with the human-rights violations that would almost inevitably occur—could sink Ankara's hopes of joining the European Union.

The United States has long promised to deal with the PKK itself—and urged patience on the Turks ever since 2003, when the PKK resumed hostilities against Turkey after a three-year ceasefire. "We will not tolerate terrorist organizations in Iraq," former U.S. Ambassador to Ankara Eric Edelman—and now Under Secretary of Defense for Policy—told NEWSWEEK at the time. "The PKK will have to be dealt with—but it will be dealt with in cooperation with Iraqis, not by unilateral military action." Yet four years later, the PKK are still in action—and Turkey's patience seems to have finally run out.

The United States has a few weeks in hand to persuade the Turks not to go in. A major international summit of Iraq's neighbors—plus representatives of the U.N. security council and the European Union—is due to convene in Istanbul on Nov. 2. Then Erdogan is due to travel to Washington on Nov. 8 to see Bush. It's unlikely that the Turkish military will launch any strike before then. But the U.S. president will have to come up—finally—with something more than promises to tackle the PKK if he's to persuade Erdogan to stand down his men.