Turkey’s February 21-29 military incursion into northern Iraq is roiling Turkish domestic politics. Both right-wing and left-wing parties accuse the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) high command of yielding to pressure from Washington, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Ankara shortly after the operation began.
The controversy has now led to a special session of parliament, to be held Friday, March 21, in response to a call by main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) for debate on the TSK’s northern Iraq operation. Reporters seeking details of the gathering will be disappointed, as the session will be closed except to parliamentary deputies. During the session the government is expected to reply to opposition criticism regarding the timing and duration of “Operation Sun.” People anxious to learn the outcome of the session will have a long wait, as the minutes of closed parliamentary sessions are sealed for a decade (Aksam, March 17).
From the outset, the incursion received broad political support from across the spectrum, with only the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (DTP) dissenting, an understandable position given that many consider it to be the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The sudden withdrawal baffled and angered several opposition parties, most notably Deniz Baykal, chairman of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Devlet Bahceli, chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Far from being opposed to the operation, both Baykal and Bahceli were mystified by the sudden termination of the incursion, and they have criticized both the government and the military ever since.
The resulting dispute has driven Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the TSK General Staff closer together, as they fend off the political attacks. The irony is that the TSK was deeply unhappy when the AKP won a landslide victory in the July 22, 2007, elections, seeing it as a party with a possible covert Islamic agenda.
The General Staff has attempted to stay above the fray by noting, “Remarks made by circles other than the press were targeted at an institution that fights terrorism and sacrifices soldiers. These remarks are unfair and worthless attacks.” While observing that the TSK does not want to get into political arguments, the statement added that such attacks damage both the image of the TSK and its determination to fight terrorism (Hurriyet, March 3).
The criticism has clearly perturbed the government. At a March 9 AKP party meeting Erdogan said, “If our Chief of the General Staff says ‘I will take my uniform off’ and if the Prime Minister says ‘I will take my political clothing off’ [in case their statements on the operation are proven untrue], you should either show evidence and prove that your criticisms are right or you should shut up. If you do not shut up, the nation will make you shut up at the ballot boxes one day…do not make politics over the army or overshadow the successful operation” (Anadolu Ajansi, March 10).
On March 11 Baykal questioned the military’s motives behind the incursion, saying, “Was the ground operation launched in order to receive Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Turkey? Did we launch a ground operation to bring [Kurdistan leader Massoud] Barzani to the negotiating table? Did we launch the ground operation to make Turkey’s Constitution un-Turkish?” (Anadolu Ajansi, March 11). The same day Bahceli told his party members that Washington’s agenda was forcing Turkey to neglect its own security interests, saying, “For the U.S., which got caught up in Iraqi swamp, the stability and security of the regional administration of Barzani are a goal higher in priority than Turkey’s national security and combat against terrorism. Therefore President [George W.] Bush carried the solution of PKK terrorism stemming from the north of Iraq into Turkey, and gave PM Erdogan the mission of solving the problem[s] of terrorism and separatism – which have internal and external aspects – over Turkey’s national unity and unitary political structure” (Anadolu Ajansi, March 11).
Ankara maintains that from the outset the operation was intended to be limited in scope and that U.S. influence played no role in concluding the incursion. According to Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, “We said that the time and scope would be limited, the operation was concluded in eight days. We said a limited number of troops, a limited number of troops would enter and withdraw. We said only the terrorist organization would be targeted, and not even a single civilian was hurt” (Kanal 7 TV, March 15).
A well-informed, Washington-based Turkish correspondent told Jamestown that Turkey had in fact briefed Washington before the incursion and stated then that the operation would last no more than two weeks, describing the subsequent declarations by Ankara and Washington as political smokescreens. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Erdogan’s government and the TSK, the opposition sees the recent political furor over the incursion as a chance to prove its patriotism and too useful a political opportunity to let slide. While Thursday’s closed parliamentary session will doubtless include “frank and candid” discussions, it will do little to inform the Turkish electorate even while it leaves the AKP and TSK aggrieved that their patriotism and professionalism have been called into question. Ironically, this limited military surgical operation, which assiduously avoided civilian casualties, has nevertheless produced collateral political damage back home.