As Turkey continues to mull its options against elements of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) based in northern Iraq, the center-right daily Milliyet has been running a series of interviews with former leading Turkish commanders evaluating the costs and benefits of a cross-border military operation and the broader question of greater cultural and political rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
Retired General Hilmi Ozkok, who served as chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS) from 2002 to 2006, argued that the political benefits of such an operation would outweigh the military ones. He noted that the PKK did not have an extensive physical infrastructure in northern Iraq and, in the face of a military incursion, the organization would simply withdraw deeper into Iraq and wait for the Turkish forces to leave.
“A cross-border military operation wouldn’t finish off the PKK,” he said. “Does that mean that it wouldn’t serve any purpose? Of course not. You would be demonstrating political will, your determination to finish the job, and your refusal to allow the organization to do as it pleased” (Milliyet, November 6).
Retired General Aytac Yalman, who served as commander of the Turkish Land Forces from 2002 to 2004, drew a comparison with the Turkish military buildup on the country’s border with Syria in fall 1998 in an attempt to pressure Syria into expelling PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who at the time was based in Damascus. In 1998 Yalman was commander of the Turkish Second Army, which was deployed to the border ready to invade Syria.
“We were going to enter Syria,” he said. “The plans were ready. We were going to go all the way to Damascus. We weren’t bluffing and they couldn’t have stopped us” (Milliyet, November 3).
Yalman noted that in 1998 the threat worked and that, once the Syrians had realized Turkey was serious, they expelled Ocalan. But he warned that, in terms of the danger posed by Kurdish nationalism to Turkey’s unity and territorial integrity, the military threat posed by the PKK was only one phase in a three-stage process. He described the PKK as the product of Turkey’s earlier failure to address what he called the ‘social dimension’ of the Kurdish problem and choosing to suppress Kurdish culture and identity instead of trying to integrate them.
“We denied that Kurds existed,” he said. “We tried to outlaw their language, songs, and culture. We saw even these social demands as ‘destructive.’ Perhaps if we had been able to address the issue when it was still a social problem, then perhaps it would not have reached the stage it has today” (Milliyet, November 3).
Yalman warned that the militarization of the Kurdish issue through the emergence of the PKK would be followed by a third and final stage, that of politicization; which, in terms of Turkey’s unity and territorial integrity, would be the most dangerous of all (November 3).
Retired General Ismail Hakki Karadayi, who served as chief of the TGS from 1994 to 1998, dismissed PKK claims that it was fighting for greater minority rights within a unitary Turkish state. “Their claims are not convincing,” he said. “The aim of the uprising is to divide Turkey and establish a separate state” (Milliyet, November 5).
But he added that the topography of the current border between Turkey and Iraq made it impossible to prevent PKK militants from infiltrating. “The border needs to be redrawn,” he said. “At the moment our border with Iraq runs along mountain peaks. This was Britain’s doing. You should always be wary whenever the Britons are involved. I believe that they were thinking ahead and wanted a border that ran along mountain peaks to make it very difficult to control” (Milliyet, November 5).
His suspicions were shared by retired General Dogan Gures, who was chief of the TGS from 1990 to 1994. He claimed that it was not only the PKK that was seeking to divide Turkey.
“The U.S. also wants this,” he said. “They have prepared maps accordingly. Cheney wants this too. Who is Cheney? The U.S. Vice President. They said ‘When you go from west to the east our only friends are the Kurds.’ This was America saying this. We need to remember this. Does the EU want it? Yes, it does. Does it have goals? What are these goals? For Turkey to become smaller. My fear is that one day someone will say ‘It’s too much of a headache. Let’s get rid of it.’ And you will see that [the southeastern province of] Hakkari has been given to Barzani” (Milliyet, November 4).
But retired General Kenan Evren, who as chief of the TGS led the 1980 military coup and served as the country’s president from 1982 to 1989, revealed that Iraqi Kurdish suspicions that some Turks still harbored dreams of annexing part of the northern Iraq were – at least until relatively recently — not entirely without foundation.
Evren said that in late 1990, in the run-up to the Gulf War, Turgut Ozal, his successor as president of Turkey, suggested annexing the northern Iraqi province of Mosul.
“He came to visit me at home and asked: ‘What do you say to us entering the north during the U.S. military operation and settling the problem of Mosul?” said Evren. “I told him not to do any such thing. It would have been a very difficult operation and once there we would have got bogged down. We would have had the whole Arab world against us.”
“I understood that Ozal’s real target was the oil in Mosul and Kirkuk,” said Evren, adding that it was only the opposition of the entire TGS that prevented Ozal from trying to realize his goal of recapturing the former Ottoman provinces ceded to Iraq at the end of World War I.
“A mistake was made in the past,” said Evren. “But it is finished. It is impossible for us to make such a claim… It is good that we didn’t try to assert it. If we had we could have been in the position that the U.S. finds itself in today” (Milliyet, November 7).