The Reaction of Iraqi Kurdistan to the Turkish Incursion

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 11

The February 21-29 Turkish incursion into Iraq failed to provoke Iraqi Kurds. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq appears to have limited its reaction to dutifully lodged diplomatic protests while Iraqi President Jalal Talabani—also the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—called on the Turks to “withdraw quickly.”

Many Iraqi Kurds believe that Turkey is using the presence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq as a pretext to try and destabilize the KRG. When questioned by a group of visiting British parliamentarians about the Turkish incursion, KRG President Massoud Barzani responded curtly: “The PKK is the result of and not the reason for Turkish actions” (New Statesman, February 29). Given this view, KRG leaders remain keen to avoid becoming entangled in serious conflict with Ankara. Barzani thus often states that “[w]e are not part of this armed dispute” and “Turkey must find a solution to it within Turkey” (AFP, March 1).

The KRG remains unwilling to take military actions against the PKK, however. The political, military and popular legitimacy costs are simply too high for Iraqi Kurdish leaders to contemplate such an internecine battle, despite their fears of being dragged into the Turkish-PKK war. The KRG has thus limited its actions to curtailing PKK movements, contacts with journalists and supply lines.

There were a number of relatively small Iraqi Kurdish demonstrations against the Turkish military operation, organized by student groups and other civil society organizations such as the Kurdistan Women’s Union. Talabani and Barzani also suffered criticism from many Kurdish intellectuals, particularly in the Kurdish diaspora, for not reacting more strongly against the Turkish incursion. PKK leader Murat Karayilan tried hard to portray the Turkish operation as “an attack against all Kurds, not just the PKK” (AFP, March 1). The fact that the Turkish operation remained confined to a remote and sparsely inhabited northeastern corner of Iraqi Kurdistan, and caused no civilian casualties, helped Barzani and Talabani to deflect some of this criticism and avoid confronting Turkey.

When Turkey withdrew its troops after only eight days, President Talabani stated that the withdrawal “bolsters the credibility of the Turkish government when it said that military operations would be limited and temporary” (AFP, March 1). Talabani then made his first official visit to Turkey as president of Iraq, accepting the February 21 invitation of Turkish President Abdullah Gul (Turkish Daily News, March 7). In Ankara, Talabani visited the tomb of the Turkish Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and wrote the following message in the visitors’ book: “As the chief of the Iraqi delegates, it is a great honor to be in front of Turkey’s great leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He is the founder of the Turkish Republic and a new life in Turkey. We greatly respect him in Iraq. We respect the role that he played at the time when Turkey was under foreign interventions and the role that he played in the recognition of a new Iraq, which used to be a part of the Ottoman Empire. We pray to Allah for Ataturk to be in paradise” (Hurriyet, March 7).

All in all, the two Iraqi Kurdish leaders appear to have weathered the crisis well. Talabani’s visit to Turkey played well with much of the Turkish public, which paid a great deal of attention to his remarks at Ataturk’s mausoleum. Turkish newspaper columnists such as Ilnur Cevrik (The New Anatolian, March 3) and Omer Taspinar and Murat Yetkin (Today’s Zaman, March 3) used the occasion to argue that Turkey should have invited him long before now and should engage more with the Iraqi Kurds. Talabani’s invitation to Turkey may have been an initiative of Turkey’s civilian government rather than its military, given that Turkish military leaders remained conspicuously absent from any meetings with him. Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish engagement thus seems to stand out as a strong alternative to conflict between the KRG and Ankara.

At the beginning of the Turkish operation, the Kurdistan Regional Government labeled Baghdad’s reaction to the incursion as “weak” (PUKMedia, February 26). Immediately after the withdrawal of Turkish troops, however, KRG President Massoud Barzani published an open letter of thanks to Arab Iraqis for their support: “The people of Kurdistan region highly appreciate the official and public stances of the Iraqi political sides, public organizations, [and] commanders of the Iraqi new army who condemned the Turkish incursion into Kurdistan region and asked [for the] urgent withdrawal of the Turkish troops. Kurdistan Region people and Presidency welcomed that public and official initiative of Iraq” (PUKMedia, March 1).

The crisis provided vindication for the Iraqi Kurdish two-pronged strategy of pursuing their interests in both Iraqi Kurdistan—via the autonomous KRG with Massoud Barzani at its head—and Baghdad, with Jalal Talabani serving as the Iraqi president. Talabani was able to marshal the political and diplomatic clout of the entire Iraqi state—and by proxy, the United States—in the face of the Turkish incursion, culminating in a diplomatic visit to Ankara. At the same time, Barzani went out of his way to thank Arab Iraqis for their support during the crisis, sending a message to the rest of Iraq that an autonomous Kurdistan remains part of the country, as well as a message to Ankara that violating Iraqi Kurdistan’s territory means violating Iraqi sovereignty in general.

During the crisis, business between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan continued as usual. Turkey now accounts for some 80 percent of investment in Iraqi Kurdistan, with approximately five billion dollars in yearly trade between the two (Turkish Daily News, April 17, 2007). Even regular civilian flights to Iraqi Kurdish airports continued as scheduled during the Turkish incursion.

Seeing a greater share of the prosperity and wealth from this growing relationship may be of more importance to the average Iraqi Kurd than a confrontation between Turkish commandos and PKK guerrillas in a remote and sparsely populated part of Iraqi Kurdistan. If KRG leaders manage to deliver more prosperity to their constituents, they will maintain enough legitimacy and control to again deal with Ankara strategically the next time a crisis erupts. If, on the other hand, corruption in the two parties that control the KRG—Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—prevents the fruits of a burgeoning economy from reaching average Kurds, both leaders will face serious opposition problems at home. Kurdish leaders facing domestic discontent and legitimacy problems in Iraq may then enjoy less flexibility in dealing with outside forces, especially since visiting Ataturk’s tomb and sending the right message to Ankara will never be popular in Kurdistan.