Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 204

There are increasing signs that Turkey’s threat to stage a military incursion into northern Iraq against camps of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is straining the country’s ties with its Muslim allies.

Since it came to power in November 2002, the moderate Islamist Justice Development Party (AKP) has worked assiduously to strengthen Turkey’s relations with other Muslim countries in the region, particularly Iran and Syria (see EDM, October 5, October 17). Since Turkey began massing troops on its border with Iraq in the wake of a string of high-casualty attacks by the PKK (see EDM, October 22), there has been considerable speculation about the impact of the military build-up on Ankara’s relations with Turkey’s Western allies, particularly the United States. However, there is little doubt that a Turkish military incursion into Iraq would also severely damage Turkey’s standing in the Muslim world.

During a recent official visit to Turkey Syrian President Bashar al-Assad publicly supported what he described as Turkey’s right to defend itself against the PKK, although he stopped short of endorsing a full-scale invasion of northern Iraq (NTV, CNNTurk, October 18). But other Muslim countries, particularly the Arab states, have been alarmed by the prospect of a Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq, not least because some suspect that it is redolent of Ottoman recidivism. Their suspicions will not have been allayed by an article that recently appeared in Sabah, one of the Turkey’s leading daily newspapers, claiming that the majority of tribal leaders in the northern Iraqi province of Mosul had declared that they would like to be under Turkish rule (Sabah, November 1). It is likely that the article was based on a misunderstanding or a statement taken out of context. However, it will doubtless reinforce a widespread failure in Turkey to understand that the empire’s former subject peoples do not share modern Turks’ happy memories of Ottoman rule.

The prospect of a Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq is likely to overshadow the November 2-3 conference in Istanbul on the future of Iraq, the latest in a series of conferences that bring together the foreign ministers of Iraq and its neighbors and representatives of the G-8 and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The Turkish media has reported that the Turkish government has been pressing for the conferences to be institutionalized through the creation of a permanent secretariat. The proposal was reportedly vigorously rejected by Iraq and Egypt, in particular, on the grounds that the secretariat could become an instrument for interference by outside powers in Middle Eastern politics (Turkish Daily News, November 2).

Nor has it only been the Arab states that have been concerned by the prospect of a Turkish military incursion. Although the AKP’s cultivation of closer political and economic ties with Iran has been largely based on feelings of Muslim solidarity, they have underpinned by practical cooperation in both energy (see EDM, October 5) and security, particularly since Iran has been faced with its own Kurdish insurgency. The Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) is comprised of Iranian Kurds and is ideologically affiliated with, but organizationally distinct from, the PKK. It even has its main camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq close to those of the PKK. Over the last three years, Turkey and Iran have shared intelligence on the PKK and PJAK. There have also been times when the security forces in the two countries appear to have coordinated the timing of military operations against Kurdish militants in their respective territories.

However, Iran’s sympathy for Turkey’s struggle against the PKK has stopped well short of support for a Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq; not least it fears that an enhanced Turkish presence there might undercut its own influence in the region. Iran has repeatedly called on Turkey to try to resolve its difference with the Iraqi Kurds and the central government in Baghdad through diplomatic means rather than military force (NTV, CNNTurk, October 31). On November 1, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Motaki unexpectedly stopped over in Ankara on his way to the conference in Istanbul to hold talks with Turkish officials, apparently in the hope of dissuading them from launching a military incursion into northern Iraq (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Vatan, November 2).

However, the expectation inside Turkey is still that some form of military action is almost inevitable. Privately, Turkish officials have already indicated that Turkey will reject any suggestion by Rice that Turkey, Iraq, and the United States should establish a trilateral mechanism to try to find a solution to the PKK presence in northern Iraq. They argue that they have already heard too many promises from Washington and will now only be satisfied by concrete action on the ground in northern Iraq (Radikal, November 2). However, Turkish officials have also indicated that, barring some unforeseen development, they will not launch any military action until after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has met with President George Bush in Washington on November 5 (Hurriyet, Milliyet, November 1).