Turkey and the United States are increasingly at odds over the entwined issues of the Kurdistan Worker’ Party (PKK) mounting hit-and-run guerrilla operations from northern Iraq into southeastern Turkey and Washington’s reluctance to rein in those activities, along with plans by the Kurdish Provisional Government to incorporate the oil-rich region of Kirkuk and its outlying areas into areas under its control.
Ankara is now playing the economic card in northern Iraq to ameliorate the situation, with a number of nationalist politicians floating the idea of shutting down its Iraqi border crossing at Habur and instead opening new border gates into Iraq through Syria, bypassing the Kurdish region (New Anatolian, April 16). Despite all their troubles, Turkey remains a major trading partner for Iraqi Kurds and closing the Habur border crossing and cutting electricity supplies could produce immense economic pressure on Iraqi Kurds.
According to Turkish Minister for Foreign Trade Kursad Tuzmen, they could abandon Habur and expand and open the Turkish-Syrian border crossing at Akcakale instead, bypassing northern Iraq, within two months. However, Tuzmen denied that such operations were specifically designed to pressure Iraq Kurds, telling reporters, “These efforts should be considered within a wide framework in relation to our strategy aiming at raising commercial and economic relations with the Middle East region,” adding that at Akcakale the Turkish Defense Ministry had been studying mine-clearing operations and that their reports would be ready by the end of June (Zaman, April 13).
The Turkish economic threats, combined with the military hints, have already provoked a moderated Kurdish Iraq response, with Kurdish Regional Prime Minister Necirvan Barzani stating that his administration would attempt to begin addressing Turkish concerns on Kirkuk. Seeking to mollify international opinion about Turkish Chief of General Staff Yasar Buykanit’s recent comments regarding the need for a possible cross-border incursion into northern Iraq to deal with PKK remnants, Barzani said, “General Buyukanit has personally visited the areas where the PKK is holed up and knows the situation very well. He is in a good position to know that such a military operation will not succeed. The PKK roams in the area in small bands and manages to escape quickly in the rugged area. So it is very hard to catch them,” stressing, “a political solution is needed” (AINA, April 16).
Ankara’s comments are not idle threats: during the 1990s, significant Turkish forces entered Iraqi territory several times, sometimes with as many as 50,000 troops. While the PKK violence dropped off sharply after the 1999 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, it has been slowly rising since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, leading to current Turkish concerns.
Some Turkish nationalist politicians have already recognized that the trade issue could be used to pressure the Kurdistan Regional Government into moderating its behavior over issues of concern to Ankara. On April 19 Anavatan party member Erkan Mumcu responded to Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani’s provocative comments about possible retaliatory attacks in southern Turkey by noting, “We need to speak in a language Barzani understands. We should close the Habur border crossing for just three days, and let him know that Turkey is not a country you can play games with. Unfortunately, Turkey is not being led by a thoughtful administration right now,” alleging that government is reluctant to do so was because of U.S. pressure (Hurriyet, April 20).
Despite the current friction in the U.S.-Turkish relationship regarding Iraq, to the east Ankara is quietly supporting United Nations and U.S. peacekeeping efforts in the region. In Afghanistan Turkish forces are supporting the U.S.-led efforts of Operation Enduring Freedom and the International Security Assistance Force, as on April 6 Turkey took over formal control of the regional ISAF administration of the Kabul Regional Command from French troops. Turkish peacekeepers have been in Afghanistan since 2002. The Turkish force will rise to 1,150 soldiers, with an additional 400 troops being sent after Ankara assumed command. The 400 new soldiers will provide logistical and communications support in the capital region, with the Turks maintaining command for eight months before transferring control to Italy in December (Akipress, April 6). The Turkish presence, while dwarfed by the U.S military presence, is nevertheless highly significant in Kabul, as Turkey is the sole Muslim state contributing peacekeepers among the 18 countries involved in ISAF.
Turkish troops are also in Kosovo, where next month they will assume command of the Multinational Task Force South deployed in the southern Kosovo in May for a year, as well as participating in the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.
In the absence of consistent support from Washington, Ankara is still apparently willing to use the carrot” rather than the “stick” in dealing with Kurds in Iraq, though the clock is ticking.