Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 155

On Tuesday, August 7, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MoU) between Iraq and Turkey. The memorandum does not commit Baghdad to take many of the concrete actions against the Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces that Turkey wanted (Today’s Zaman, August 8). Prior to Maliki’s visit, Ankara hoped to receive a commitment from Baghdad to arrest PKK leaders in Iraq, close down PKK front organizations in Iraq, and cut off the PKK’s funding and logistics sources, among other concrete measures (Radikal, August 8; also see EDM, August 8).

According to the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, the central government of Iraq (as opposed to the Kurdistan Autonomous Region) is responsible for maintaining and protecting Iraq’s international borders. In practice, the Iraqi Kurds have this responsibility for the northern border with Turkey. With violence continuing unabated in the Arab parts of Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki may have been unable to provide Turkey with the commitments it wanted regarding PKK cross-border attacks.

Citing retired Turkish General Armagan Kuloglu, Today’s Zaman stated that the signing of the MoU would pacify Turkey into not launching a large military incursion into Iraq this year (August 8). Because the MoU calls for more deliberations and the signing of another agreement to contain the PKK in October, Turkey will have to wait for diplomacy to run its course. After October, the mountain passes on the Turkish-Iraqi border will become snowed in for the winter, stymieing both PKK cross-border raids and a possible Turkish military operation against Iraq-based PKK units. The MoU signed on August 7 states, “[T]he two prime ministers instructed their relevant officials to expedite and finalize the work on the Agreement on Combating Terrorism and the Memorandum of Understanding between Interior Ministers on cooperation to combat terrorism and organized crime within two months” (Turkish Daily News, August 9).

If the government in Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government fail to commit to concrete measures against the PKK by the spring or summer of 2008, however, Ankara may then claim to have tried everything to solve the problem diplomatically and resort to its long-threatened military incursion. The likelihood of such an incursion in the summer of 2008 will also be much higher if most U.S. troops have withdrawn from Iraq by then. Iraqi Kurdish leaders appear loathe to act militarily against the PKK for fear of a public backlash if they are seen to be aiding Turkey against fellow Kurds.

Particularly after PKK attacks picked up in 2004, the Turkish military, the media, and some politicians have been agitating about the need to send troops after the roughly 5,000 Iraq-based PKK guerrillas. The Turkish public now expects to see some kind of action taken. The PKK’s main bases in Iraq are in the Qandil Mountains, however, which are closer to the Iranian border than to the Turkish one. Any Turkish ground offensive would therefore have to traverse deep into Iraqi Kurdistan to reach the PKK, with the very real possibility of Iraqi Kurdish resistance (in addition to resistance from the PKK). Besides facing the risk of getting bogged down by guerrilla warfare in mountainous northern Iraq, Turkey might also then have to contend with more unrest from its own Kurdish areas, many of whose residents sympathize with their Iraqi Kurdish kin.

The possibility of actually destroying the PKK in Iraq also appears remote. The numerous Turkish incursions during the 1990s, usually conducted with the assistance rather than the resistance of Iraqi Kurdish forces, yielded few gains. Finally, the ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey seems to have little appetite for a large-scale invasion of Iraq, particularly when U.S. and European positions are also considered. A large incursion would also put an end to the growing trade and investment between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, which is currently estimated to amount to 5 billion dollars annually. Should Turkish diplomacy again fail to yield tangible results in 2008, more limited air raids and special forces operations against Iraq-based PKK units will probably remain a much more likely option for Ankara.