Testing the waters for a regional reaction to a cross-border operation into Iraq’s Kurdish north, the Turkish military sent troops into Iraqi territory late last month. The Turkish forces remained in northern Iraq for only a few hours and no confrontations took place; instead, the operation appeared to be a show of force. What seems like a “non-event” comes at a time when Turkey has amassed troops along its border and is publicly debating military plans for cross-border operations into Iraqi Kurdistan, while at the same time publicly declaring it will combat Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters along the border in cooperation with the Iraqi government. Frustrated and unable to stop PKK attacks, the Turkish government is still unsure which direction it will go.
The assistant commander of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) peshmerga, Fahmi Sofi, reported to Voice of Iraq radio that a 200-strong Turkish unit entered into Kurdistan, accompanied by village guards. The unit remained in Iraqi territory for only a few hours and penetrated two miles into Iraq before heading back (Voice of Iraq, July 26). Iraqi and Kurdish authorities offered a measured response to Turkey’s breach of sovereignty. Iraqi officials are trying to show that they are sensitive to Turkey’s terrorism concerns and frustrations over their perception that Iraq and the United States are not doing more to come down against the PKK. Iraq does not want to do anything that will tip Turkey’s teetering policy and cause it to invade Iraqi territory in pursuit of PKK hideouts in the north.
Iraqi Deputy President Tarik al-Hashami pledged that, “Iraq will not be a base for terror organizations, including the PKK.” Iraq has ordered the closing of the Ocalan Cultural Center that PKK sympathizers attempted to open in Baghdad after Turkey voiced its opposition (Cihan News Agency, August 9). The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also stopped issuing identity cards and granting citizenship to Turkish Kurdish refugees after the incident (Turkish Daily News, August 8). On the other hand, parts of the Iraqi government, especially the KRG, are also very sensitive to incursions into their territory and challenges to their nascent authority. KRG President Massoud Barzani has stated, “we do not want any power or any party to use the Kurdistan region as a zone for launching attacks on our neighbors…but if any country attacks Kurdistan, we will defend ourselves” (Turkish Daily News, July 29). Fuad Husayn, a political advisor to President Barzani, also stated, “it is well known for everybody, especially for the Turkish authority itself, that the PKK is more active inside Turkey…not in Iraqi Kurdistan. Having said that, we would like to have a good relationship with the Turkish government, and we are not intervening in Turkish internal affairs. At the same time, we would not like to see others intervene in the internal affairs of [Iraqi] Kurdistan” (RFE/RL, July 28).
The brief Turkish incursion is not the only cause of concern for Iraqi Kurdish authorities. There have been other actions along the border. Turkey is sending fresh reinforcements to the already significant military presence it has amassed along the border. The Dogan News Agency reported that hundreds of tanks and other vehicles arrived in Hakkari province and several commando units have been deployed along the border (Turkish Daily News, August 10). Turkey has also carried out operations against PKK holdouts in Iraq from its side of the border. Most recently, troops opened fire from the Turkish side of the border. Local villagers described the artillery fire as heavy and targeting PKK camps (Cihan News Agency, August 8). Although Turkey has indicated to Washington that it will back off from talk of cross-border operations, the troop reinforcements also reinforce Turkey’s seriousness about mounting military operations inside Iraq if needed.