On October 10 the Turkish government announced that it was preparing to initiate a long-term dialogue with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in an attempt to increase pressure on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose main camps and bases are located in the mountains of northern Iraq in territory nominally administered by the KRG (CNNTurk, October 10).
The announcement came two days after the Turkish parliament voted on October 8 to extend by another 12 months the mandate for the Turkish military to conduct cross-border operations against the PKK’s camps and bases in northern Iraq. Since the United States agreed to lift its opposition to cross-border operations, the PKK’s camps and bases in northern Iraq have come under regular air attack from Turkish warplanes. On October 3, however, the PKK demonstrated that the air raids had failed to destroy its ability to stage offensive operations when it killed 17 Turkish soldiers in a mass attack on a military outpost at Aktutun close to the Turkish-Iraqi border (see EDM, October 6). On October 8, PKK militants ambushed a bus carrying police personnel in the center of the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, killing six (see EDM, October 9).
On October 11 the police detained a woman carrying explosives in the Sisli neighborhood of Istanbul. Istanbul Governor Muammer Guler issued a statement claiming that the woman was a member of the PKK and was about to carry out a suicide bombing. “Explosives discovered in her bag demonstrate that she was preparing to carry out an attack,” said Guler (Zaman, Hurriyet, Milliyet, October 12). But subsequent police statements claimed that the woman’s bag contained 8.8 kilograms of A4 explosives and 15 detonators (NTV, CNNTurk, Anadolu Ajansi, October 12), which would appear to be excessive for a single device and suggest that she was merely transporting bomb-making equipment. Nevertheless, there is no reason to doubt the allegation that the woman, who appears to have been under surveillance, was associated with the PKK, which sends explosives and bomb-making equipment from its camps in northern Iraq across Anatolia for its bombing campaign in western Turkey (see EDM, September 7, 2007).
The attacks in Aktutun and Diyarbakir and the subsequent seizure of explosives in Sisli have been interpreted by PKK supporters and opponents of the Turkish military as proof of the failure of the air raids against the organization’s camps and bases in northern Iraq. This is misleading. There is little doubt that the air raids have damaged the PKK, disrupting its supply lines into Turkey and forcing it onto the defensive both militarily and psychologically; not least because many in the organization believed that the United States would never allow Turkey to launch cross-border operations (Jamestown interviews with sources close to the PKK, May 2008). But the timing of the Turkish government’s announcement of its willingness to engage in a dialogue with the KRG does appear to be a tacit admission that, by themselves, the cross-border operations have not been as successful in reducing the PKK’s operational capabilities as had originally been hoped.
Although it has repeatedly criticized the KRG for not doing enough to clamp down on the activities of the PKK in northern Iraq, the Turkish government has been reluctant to engage with the KRG directly for fear that this would be interpreted as recognition of its political authority in northern Iraq; which could encourage the Iraqi Kurds to accelerate what Ankara suspects, not without reason, is their ultimate goal of establishing an independent Kurdish state. Turkey believes that this, in turn, could fuel separatist sentiments amongst its own Kurdish minority. As a result, Turkey has concentrated on attempting to pressure the KRG via the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, which has little influence in northern Iraq.
The first indication of a softening in Turkey’s position came on March 28, when a delegation led by Murat Ozcelik, the Special Envoy to Iraq at the Turkish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, traveled to northern Iraq to meet with the governor of Dohuk Province and Safeen Dizayee, the External Relations Director of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the coalition partners in the KRG (see EDM, April 25). The change in policy was confirmed on April 24 by the Turkish National Security Council (NSC), which issued a statement noting that it would be beneficial for Turkey to “continue consultations with all Iraqi groups and groupings” (Press Release of the NSC Meeting of April 24, www.mgk.gov.tr).
The initiative announced on October 10 appears to foresee a shift from occasional, relatively low-level, contacts with KRG officials to a sustained high-level dialogue. Ozcelik and Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief foreign policy advisor, were reported to have flown to Baghdad on October 14, where they were due to meet with KRG President Massoud Barzani in the first of what is expected to be a series of regular contacts with KRG officials (Hurriyet, NTV, CNNTurk, Milliyet, October 14). On October 10, the Turkish news channel CNNTurk quoted an unnamed government official as saying that: “Previously we communicated our wishes. Now we are looking to work together to realize them” (CNNTurk, October 10).
The KRG has repeatedly refused to move against the PKK camps in the mountains, arguing that it lacks the military resources to stage an effective campaign in a difficult terrain. These explanations have been regarded with considerable skepticism by Turkey, which has also called on the KRG to prevent PKK members from transiting and sourcing supplies from the lowlands of northern Iraq and from using Iraqi Kurdish hospitals and airports. In addition to repeating such demands, Turkey is also likely to use its planned sustained dialogue to call for greater intelligence cooperation and regularly warn the KRG that it should not interpret engagement as an indication of a softening of its opposition to an independent Kurdish state.
Publicly at least, the KRG has welcomed the change in Turkish policy. It is aware, however, that acceding to Turkey’s demands carries considerable risks. It is unclear whether, as the KRG claims, it lacks the resources to move militarily against the PKK camps and bases. What is certain is that a military campaign would not be easy. At a time when it is coming under intense domestic criticism, particularly for widespread corruption and its failure to provide basic services, the KRG would also risk a political backlash if it moved against an organization that, for all its faults, is still viewed with sympathy by many Iraqi Kurds; especially if such a move were made at the behest of a government that is regarded as suppressing fellow Kurds inside Turkey.