The U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) came into force on January 1, creating a new environment for future Turkish air strikes on the PKK camps based in northern Iraq. The SOFA agreement makes it clear that “Iraqi land, sea, and air shall not be used as a launching or transit point for attacks against other countries.”  The PKK continues to use northern Iraq as a base for cross-border attacks against Turkey.
While Iraqi airspace was under American control, Turkish aircraft were allowed to bomb PKK targets in northern Iraq. Under the terms of the new agreement, the United States has handed control of Iraqi airspace to the government of Iraq, generating Turkish concerns over the possibility that Baghdad may refuse the entry of Turkish warplanes into Iraqi airspace. The Iraqi ambassador to Turkey, Sabah Omran, insists that the new arrangement will not create a problem for bilateral ties: "We’ve read this agreement and sent an Iraqi delegation to listen to Turkey’s advice. Turkey gives us all assistance. The Turkish side is helping Iraq to regain its sovereignty. This is a significant move. They [Turkish authorities] support this agreement" (Hurriyet, January 1). Addressing the difficulties that the PKK presence in northern Iraq has presented in relations with Turkey, Ambassador Omran added:
This has always had a negative impact on ties. The Turkish side asks Iraq to eradicate the PKK. Eradicating the PKK is not like you have a pencil on the desk and you want to move it. No, you cannot do it. This is a very large, mountainous, isolated area… This is not an issue that the Iraqi government does not want to cooperate [in], but the nature of the problem makes things difficult. This problem cannot even be controlled by the Turkish government. We believe, as [do] the Iraqi government and even Kurdistan regional leaders, that [the PKK] is a terrorist organization we should eradicate (Hurriyet, January 1).
Hostilities Abate in Northern Iraq
Since SOFA took effect, Turkish air raids into northern Iraq have ended. The last reported air raid into northern Iraq was on the night of December 30, 2008 (CNNTurk, December 30, 2008). Instead of aerial strikes, Turkey has shelled suspected PKK bases across the border twice, on January 15 and 17 (Rojaciwan.com, January 15; January 17). No explanation was given for ending the bombardment of northern Iraq, though it could be related to a number of recent developments within Turkey related to improving Turkish-Kurdish relations:
a) the opening of the state owned Kurdish TV channel (see Terrorism Focus, January 13);
b) the growing relations with the Kurds of northern Iraq;
c) the suggestion that the prison conditions of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan might be improved;
d) and/or the local elections approaching in March, in which the ruling Justice and Development Party hopes to secure a good portion of the ethnic Kurdish vote in southeast Turkey.
These factors undoubtedly warmed the political climate toward implementing political solutions for the Kurdish question. The new climate forced the PKK to declare a unilateral ceasefire for ten days, effective from December 8. Reportedly, Abdullah Ocalan asked the PKK leaders to consider the possibility of a political solution until the spring of 2009, forcing the PKK leadership to extend the ceasefire until spring 2009 (Taraf, December 24).
Positive Aspects of SOFA
There is no doubt that the SOFA agreement will create further challenges for Turkey when it comes to the fight against the PKK. On the other hand, the SOFA agreement has brought some positive changes as well. First, the agreement made it clear that Iraqi lands cannot be used as a base to attack its neighbors, which gives Turkey the right to apply to the U.S., the Iraqi government, and the international community to take effective measures against PKK activities in northern Iraq. Second, with the implementation of the SOFA agreement, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq became fully responsible for the security and stability of the region. The KRG’s new legal status forced Turkey to establish official ties with the KRG, which would not have been possible if American control of Iraq’s sovereignty continued because Turkey was able to avoid the KRG by talking directly with the United States. With the SOFA agreement in effect, the Turkish government and military had no alternative but to establish better cooperation with the KRG in order to deal with the PKK. Turkey’s attempt to establish better relations with the KRG was warmly welcomed by the majority of the Kurdish people of Turkey.
After the SOFA agreement was announced, KRG and central government officials lined up to denounce the PKK presence in Iraqi territory. Iraqi President and Kurdish political leader Jalal al-Talabani said, "Putting an end to violence and putting an end to the armed struggle within Turkish territory is for the good of everybody, including the Kurds. Let’s do something to persuade those in the mountains [the PKK members] to lay down their arms and come back to their homes” (Today’s Zaman, December 23, 2008). Two days later, Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, announced, "The activity of the PKK is aimed at harming bilateral relations between Iraq and Turkey. On this issue, we have the same view as Turkey" (Todays Zaman, December 25, 2008). Prime Minister al-Maliki, during his visit to Iran (which is also fighting ethnic Kurdish insurgents based in northern Iraq), again gave assurances that the Iraqi government will not tolerate the PKK in Iraqi territory (Hurriyet, January 5). In addition, the President of the KRG, Masud Barzani, declared, “If the PKK continues its armed struggle it does not have a place in northern Iraq” (NTV, December 26).
Iraqi leaders have never given such a clear message that they are committed to cooperate with Turkey against the PKK. With the implementation of the SOFA agreement, Iraq’s leadership wants to prove that Iraq is a sovereign country and desires to live in peace with its neighbors. Therefore, they are giving clear-cut messages to the PKK that it must end its armed struggle.
Before the SOFA agreement was announced, the United States, Iraq, and Turkey formed a joint committee to combat the PKK. The committee will meet every two months to exchange intelligence and to coordinate security measures against the PKK (almanar.com, November 20, 2008). Based on this agreement, Turkish authorities prepared a three-phase plan targeting the PKK:
According to the first phase of the plan, the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq would declare the PKK an "outlawed organization" in order to isolate the PKK in the region. In the second phase, northern Iraqi officials would call on PKK terrorists to lay down arms and tell its members that they harm the rights and future of the Kurdish people both in Turkey and Iraq. In the last phase, Iraq’s central government, the Kurdish regional administration and U.S. forces would join Turkey’s military struggle with the terror organization PKK in the region. he plan also foresees Turkish officials attending the questioning sessions of PKK members captured in northern Iraq (Hurriyet, December 15, 2008).
It seems that the first two phases of the plan are achievable. However, in the third phase of the plan, it is too optimistic to expect the Iraqi central government, the KRG, and U.S. forces to join Turkey’s military struggle. Though they have declared support for the struggle against the PKK, both Barzani and al-Talibani have indicated that they would not use Iraqi troops to fight the PKK (Hurriyet, December 25, 2008).
Missing from all the optimistic promises and statements repudiating the PKK is an accurate appraisal of how the PKK might respond to this cooperation against it. With as many as 5,000 militants under arms, the group has significant power to terrorize the region. The PKK is reported to be unhappy with the growing cooperation between Turkey and the KRG. Ahmet Deniz, a senior PKK cadre, warned, “Those Iraqi Kurds who cooperate with Turkey against the PKK are traitors. Barzani should reveal what benefits he gets from Turkey to sell out the PKK. The PKK declares that those who sign the agreements against the PKK are the biggest enemy of the PKK and they will pay the price for that” (Hurriyet, December 25, 2008; Diyarbakir Soz, December 26, 2008). Murat Karayilan, acting head of the PKK, projected that “the year 2009 will be a year for solution. The PKK is open to any political solution; however, we also expect intense attacks from the Turkish military. Therefore we are ready to fight as well” (Firat News Agency, December 25, 2008).
Turkey appears to have found itself in a deadlocked position, neither able to completely eradicate the PKK physically nor to provide a political solution that would bring the PKK down from the mountains. After the SOFA agreement, however, Turkey may have finally found a way to bring all parties – including Iraqi Kurds, the Iraqi central government, Iran, and the United States – together against the PKK. With this broad coalition behind it, Turkey could at last find a way to manage the PKK problem by providing cultural rights to the Kurds of Turkey and developing economic and political ties with the Iraqi Kurds. Such an approach has the potential to isolate the PKK from rest of Kurdish society.
Yet the PKK, by intensifying its terror campaign as a last resort, could turn the Kurdish region of Turkey into a military zone where ordinary Kurds could not exercise their cultural and political rights, forcing them to turn once more to the PKK. If the PKK finds a way to manipulate Turkey’s recent policies, it could bring more chaos to the region in 2009 and set back a promising trend towards a political solution to the conflict.
1. https://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/iraq/SE_SOFA.pdf, Article 27, Paragraph 3.