Fresh from its landslide victory in the Turkish elections of July 22, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has once again begun to increase pressure on the United States to move against elements of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) based in northern Iraq.
On July 28, Turkish government officials announced that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamel al-Maliki had accepted an invitation to visit Turkey in the second week of August, with the PKK presence in northern Iraq expected to be at the top of the agenda (NTV, July 28). On July 29, the British Daily Telegraph newspaper published an interview with Egemen Bagis, a close confidante of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warning that, if the United States did not move against the PKK itself, Turkey would launch a cross-border military operation against the organization’s camps in Iraq’s Qandil mountains (Sunday Telegraph, July 29). On July 30, the Washington Post published details of what it claimed were US plans to attempt to decapitate the PKK by seizing the organization’s leaders in northern Iraq in a joint covert operation with the Turkish military (Washington Post, July 30).
Domestic public pressure on the Turkish authorities to stage a cross-border military operation against the PKK has been growing since early spring, when the organization began to step up its insurgency inside Turkey following the melting of the winter snows. The PKK scaled back its operations inside Turkey in the run-up to the July 22 elections, presumably to ensure the AKP would seek to placate nationalist voters by striking at the organization’s camps in northern Iraq. However, recent days have witnessed another upsurge in PKK activity across the country. On July 26, the PKK attacked an army post close to the Black Sea town of Giresun (CNNTurk, July 27). On July 29, there were clashes between PKK units and the Turkish security forces close to the southeastern towns of Mardin and Semdinli (Hurryet, July 30).
Yet any military action, either by Turkish forces on their own or in cooperation with U.S. troops, is likely to antagonize the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, who have repeatedly warned that they will resist any Turkish incursion into their territory (Jerusalem Post, July 20). Although most attention has been focused on the possibility of a military confrontation between Turkish forces and the Iraqi Kurd militia, known as peshmerga, any increase in tensions could also have negative economic repercussions, not only for northern Iraq but also for the southeast of Turkey, where poverty and high unemployment have been among the main factors fuelling support and recruitment for the PKK.
According to a survey published in Milliyet newspaper earlier this year, cross border trade between Turkey and northern Iraq is estimated to be worth $5 billion per year (Milliyet, April 6). Since 2003 Turkish contractors have secured $2 billion worth of contracts in northern Iraq and are expected to receive a lion’s share of the $15 billion worth of contracts due to be awarded over the next three years (Milliyet, April 5). A total of 1,200 Turkish companies are believed to be operating in northern Iraq, employing around 14,000 expatriate Turks and creating jobs for tens of thousands more inside Turkey (Milliyet, April 7).
However, there is an awareness in Turkey that pressure on the Iraqi Kurds over the PKK may also serve another of the country’s goals in the region. There is a genuine concern in Turkey that, if the predominantly Kurdish population of Kirkuk votes to come under the administration of the Iraqi Kurds in the referendum due to be held in early fall, it could be the first step towards the creation of an independent Kurdish state in what is now northern Iraq (Yeni Cag, July 26); which Turkish nationalists fear could in turn serve as an inspiration for Turkey’s own restive Kurdish minority.
In conversation with this Jamestown correspondent, Turkish officials commented that they believed that the close ties between Washington and the Iraqi Kurds in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq had led the Iraqi Kurdish leadership to believe that it was immune to Turkish pressure, whether over the PKK or the possibility of establishing an independent Kurdish state. They said that until relatively recently the Iraqi Kurdish leadership had appeared confident that the United States would prevent Turkey from interfering in northern Iraq. However, Iraqi Kurdish confidence has now started to waver as the vehemence of US warnings to Ankara against a cross-border military operation has begun to soften. The result, said Turkish officials, is that the Iraqi Kurdish leaders have been forced to strengthen ties with the central government in Baghdad and pledge their commitment to remaining an integral part of a unified Iraq. Consequently, regardless of whether or not Turkish forces crossed the border, the threat that it might do so – and the Iraqi Kurds’ declining confidence in Washington to prevent it – would itself have served Turkey’s long-term strategic interests.