After only eight days, Turkey abruptly ended its military incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan on Friday February 29. The withdrawal of Turkish troops caught many observers, as well as the Turkish public, by surprise.
Only one day earlier, Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit refused to announce a withdrawal date following pressure from U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President George W. Bush. Both Gates and Bush publicly asked Turkey to keep its incursion “as short as possible,” to which Buyukanit responded, “The shortest time is a relative concept. It may be one day or it might mean a year” (NTV, February 28). Turkish media at the same time reported about the Turkish military’s plans to go as deep as 50 kilometers into Iraq and capture the main Qandil base of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) (Yeni Safak, February 26).
The abrupt withdrawal only one day after Gates’s request and visit to Ankara led to accusations that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government had caved into U.S. pressure to end the operation. While both Erdogan and the Turkish military insisted that the withdrawal was already planned for February 29 and not the result of outside pressure, various observers speculated otherwise. Writing for one of Turkey’s most widely read newspapers, columnist Yilmaz Ozdil speculated that Turkey received its recent $6.2 billion World Bank loan in return for ending the operation. He added that “Bush asked us to get out. We got out. When on holiday, you can’t even check out of your hotel room that quickly” (Hurriyet, March 1). Today’s Zaman, on the other hand, cited reports that the military’s withdrawal surprised even the Turkish government: “…[on Friday] Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had to revise the text of an address to the nation to take into account the troop withdrawal. In the text, Erdogan spoke of continued operations” (March 3). Turkish opposition leader Deniz Baykal (CHP) added that “We all wish that the operation had achieved lasting results. This is not possible in eight days” (Today’s Zaman, March 3).
The PKK claimed victory from the withdrawal. Speaking from his still very much intact base in the Qandil Mountains, PKK leader Murat Karayilan announced that Turkey “attacked our forces on three fronts in the Zap region, but failed to achieve their goals even though the Turkish army has advanced technology and jet fighters that flew over the combat zone and bombed us non-stop” (AFP, March 1). While the Turkish army claims to have killed some 250 PKK militants and lost 24 soldiers, the PKK admits to only a handful of losses and claims 130 Turkish soldiers killed and one helicopter downed (which Turkey admits to as well). Karayilan also tried hard to portray the Turkish incursion as an attack on all Kurds, rather than just the PKK. Other Kurdish sources claim that in addition to the PKK’s stiff resistance, the heavy snows of this remote part of Iraqi Kurdistan forced Turkey to abandon the operation (Kurdistan Observer, February 29).
From the Iraqi Kurds’ perspective, the difficulties that the Turkish operation faced vindicates their reluctance to move against the PKK militarily. If Turkey, with advanced attack helicopters, F-16s, heavy artillery, tanks, and airborne commandos can not dislodge the PKK, how can the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) be expected to do so? KRG representative Safeen Dizayee commented to Turkish media that “5,000, even 50,000 troops” could not control Qandil, just as Saddam never managed to control the area either (Hurriyet, February 28).
Although Turkey undoubtedly caused the PKK some damage with this latest incursion, guerrilla forces typically disperse quickly in the face of large scale attacks, leaving few casualties. Lost supply depots and recruits can then be replaced in short order, particularly if the fighting raises the profile and legitimacy of the guerrillas. In fact, Iraqi Kurdish leaders told Jamestown that they suspect that the latest round of fighting made a weak and isolated PKK more politically relevant than before (Interview with Qubad Talabany, KRG Representative to the U.S., March 1).
The tally of casualties for the PKK and Turkey in this latest round of fighting may remain difficult to determine conclusively. In the larger scheme of things, it may not matter much either: if the PKK manages to portray itself as having given the Turkish army a bloody nose this time around, the group will have burnished its Kurdish nationalist credentials, legitimacy, and stature – which are the main objectives in this kind of guerrilla war.
To really undercut the PKK’s legitimacy and support base, Ankara would need to go further in convincing Kurds in the country that there is little justification for the PKK’s resort to violence. Prime Minister Erdogan’s government may now turn around and tell Turkey’s public and powerful military that a change in strategy is needed, and to push more economic development in the southeast as well as human rights, minority rights, and other political reforms. This kind of political program might also get a more willing collaboration from the Iraqi Kurds. KRG officials are eager to act as intermediaries in negotiations for a political settlement that would bring the PKK down from their mountain camps. The PKK itself has called for this dialogue. Such a strategy has a better chance of scoring a real victory against the PKK, in contrast to the frequently proclaimed, but ever elusive, military solutions.