Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 201

Turkish media reports from the country’s border with Iraq suggest that the Turkish authorities have begun to apply economic pressure against the Iraqi Kurds ahead of possible full-scale sanctions.

On October 24, a statement released after a six-hour meeting of Turkey’s National Security Council (NSC) outlined a package of economic measures that could be applied to the Iraqi Kurds in an attempt to force the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to crack down on the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq (see EDM, October 25). However, even though sanctions have yet to be officially applied, the Turkish authorities already appear to be reducing the flow of truck traffic through the main border gate of Habur. The number of trucks transiting the border each day has now fallen to 400, down from a daily average of 1,000 before the NSC meeting. Trucks waiting to transit Habur form a backup several kilometers long (Dogan Haber Ajansi, October 29).

The Turkish authorities announced that the goal of sanctions would be to isolate the Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq while maintaining economic ties with the rest of the country. There is no rail link between Turkey and Iraq. With the exception of some non-lethal military supplies being flown to U.S. troops in Iraq from the airbase at Incirlik in southeastern Turkey, virtually all freight is transported by road. Levies on truck traffic provide the KRG with several hundred million dollars in revenue each year. The Turkish authorities have been discussing bypassing northern Iraq by closing the Habur border gate and diverting all truck traffic from Turkey via Syria and then into Iraq through the border crossing close at Rabia.

However, there are fears that the closure of Habur would have a devastating impact on the economy of southeast Turkey. The majority of Turkish exports to Iraq go to the north of the country. Even if they officially forbid trade with the territory under the KRG’s control, in practice the Turkish authorities are unlikely to be able to prevent goods reaching the north of the country. But the roundabout route would undoubtedly push up costs. Perhaps more importantly, Turkish truck drivers are reluctant to use the Rabia border crossing because they claim that the onward journey would be too dangerous as it passes through areas with frequent insurgent activity. In July 2007, insurgents killed two Turkish drivers and burned their trucks, while their convoy was traveling from Rabia toward the city of Mosul (Radikal, Milliyet, October 30).

The current consensus in Turkey is that, barring unexpected developments, the government will not order a cross-border military operation until after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with President George W. Bush in Washington on Monday, November 5 (Radikal, October 30). But inside Turkey, fighting between PKK militants and the Turkish security forces continues. On October 30, the Turkish media reported that four Turkish soldiers and 17 PKK militants had been killed in six separate clashes over the previous 36 hours (Hurriyet, Vatan, Milliyet, Sabah, Radikal, CNNTurk October 30). Most of the fighting occurred in southeast Turkey, close to the country’s border with Iraq. It is currently unclear whether the PKK militants involved had infiltrated across the border or were attempting to withdraw from Turkey ready to wait out the winter in the organization’s camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq.

Several firefights were also reported in the mountainous central-eastern province of Tunceli, which has long been a haven for armed militant groups, including leftist extremists as well as the PKK. Unlike elsewhere in southeastern Turkey, the terrain and the distance from the border with Iraq mean that a large proportion of the PKK militants in Tunceli usually also winter there, taking refuge in caves in the mountains (Radikal, Milliyet, NTV, October 30).

The continuing violence has ensured that the public mood in Turkey has remained aggressively nationalistic. On October 29, what are traditionally ceremonies to celebrate of the anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923 turned into mass anti-PKK rallies. October 29 is also one of the key dates in the personality cult that has grown up around the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), who himself suppressed several Kurdish rebellions in the 1920s and 1930s. According to official figures, on October 29 this year, a record 427,000 people visited Ataturk’s tomb, the Anitkabir, in the center of Ankara. They were led by thousands of serving members of the Turkish military, which continues to see itself as guardian of Ataturk’s legacy. In an indication of the prevailing bellicose mood, for the first time in many years, officers arrived to pay their respects at Ataturk’s tomb wearing their ceremonial swords (Milliyet, Sabah, October 30).