Despite Advances, Kurdistan Sits in Shaky Neighborhood

Stephen DeAngelis

October 18, 2007

I have written a number of posts about Kurdistan and my trips there. These posts have been mostly positive and have discussed the economic boom that taking place there thanks to the relatively secure environment the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has managed to achieve. Nevertheless, I have also referred to the area as the Edges of Globalization, meaning that just beyond the relative calm there remains risks to economic development. That was never clearer than yesterday when the Turkish parliament overwhelming authorized the government to send troops into northern Iraq [“Turkey Authorizes Iraq Incursion,” by Molly Moore, Washington Post, 18 October 2007].

“The Turkish parliament on Wednesday overwhelmingly authorized cross-border military attacks in northern Iraq against Kurdish separatist rebels, as world leaders pleaded for restraint. Lawmakers voted 507 to 19 to give Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan permission to order strategic strikes or large-scale invasions of Iraq for a one-year period. Erdogan has said he will not order an immediate attack. … Only the small, pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party opposed the parliamentary resolution, arguing that military action would worsen the economic plight of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.”

There is lots of finger pointing going on. Most of the world’s leaders are begging Turkey for restraint while Turkey claims Iraq, the KRG, and the United States have failed to deliver on their promises to curtail terrorist activity originating in northern Iraq.

“Throughout 2 1/2 hours of debate, legislators expressed frustration that the United States and Iraq have not kept promises to curb the activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, which the United States and European Union have classified as a terrorist organization. As the votes were tallied in Turkey’s modernistic legislative chamber here, President Bush told reporters at a White House news conference that ‘we are making it very clear to Turkey that we don’t think it is in their interest to send troops into Iraq.’ In the hours leading up to the vote, Turkish leaders were besieged with last-minute telephone calls from across the globe, imploring against military action on grounds that it could inflame the only relatively stable region of war-ravaged Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki telephoned Erdogan, asking for more time to take action against PKK rebels who have largely been allowed to operate freely in northern Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. He said he has given ‘strict instructions’ to the regional Kurdish administration in Iraq’s north to crack down on PKK operations and said Iraqi forces could join the Turkish army in military operations ‘if necessary,’ according to the Anatolian news agency. Erdogan’s office denied there was an offer of joint military action. … Turkish lawmakers on Wednesday accused the United States and the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq of giving PKK leaders and fighters free rein to run their headquarters and training camps and plot attacks on Turkey, despite a 2003 agreement to assist in curbing rebel operations inside Iraq.”

The KRG walks a fine line when it comes to the PKK. Historically, Kurds have been persecuted by major powers in the area and have longed for a country to call their own. As a result, the KRG finds it distasteful to have to use its military forces against ethnic Kurds. On the other hand, its economic development rests in large measure on maintaining good relationships with its neighbors, especially Turkey. There are suspicions in Kurdistan that the Turkey’s real motive is slowing the economic progress in northern Iraq because success there only encourages Kurds in Turkey to seek an autonomous region of their own. Turkey, they insist, is only using PKK attacks as an excuse to disrupt the economy.

“In Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, people expressed anger over the Turkish moves. Faisal Muhammad Abbas, 28, a university student, said that Turkey wants to bring “disaster” to his part of the country. “They think if Kurdistan will continue improving in Iraq this will be a motive for the Kurds in Turkey to call for the same thing and fight for it.” Some Kurds say they have already fled their homes because of Turkish shelling.

In his press conference yesterday, President Bush noted that Turkey already had troops in Iraq and insisted that it didn’t need anymore. But the Turks insist that the U.S., who pledged to help them with the PKK problem, simply is too involved elsewhere in Iraq to care about their problem. As a result, Turkish troops in northern Iraq are basically sequestered on their bases. That’s what the Turks want to change.

“Turkey has had limited numbers of troops in northern Iraq since before the 2003 invasion. Morrell said there are now two or three battalions that function mainly as observers. ‘They are pretty much confined to their bases,’ he said. ‘Their movements are limited and must be coordinated with us.’ Although the Turkish government now has the authority to strike, some Turkish officials and military experts warned that the military would face serious obstacles in all types of cross-border action, including many of the same problems the U.S. military has experienced in Iraq. Turkish troops have conducted 24 cross-border attacks in northern Iraq since the conflict with PKK rebels began 23 years ago, according to Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek. That included several operations with tens of thousands of soldiers and heavy aerial bombardments. The military never routed PKK rebels from northern Iraq. Now the task will be harder because the PKK has been embraced by the local Kurdish population and its authorities, officials and analysts said.”

Turkey’s frustration is understandable, PKK attacks have increased in the past few weeks, yet there has been no outcry from the West and little international press coverage. As a result, the Turks believe that the U.S. and EU are applying double standards when it comes to terrorist attacks.

“PKK rebels have escalated attacks inside Turkey in the last two weeks, killing 31 people including 13 military commandos and a busload of civilians. The Turkish public was enraged by the attacks, which were the deadliest in more than a decade, increasing pressure for cross-border action.”

It’s clear that something must be done. The U.S. certainly wouldn’t tolerate such attacks without taking action and the Turks are aware of that; thus, the cries of double standards. For its part, however, the U.S. is looking at a broader regional picture. The Kurds in northern Iraq are America’s strongest supporters in the region. More importantly, however, the U.S. is looking outside of Iraq to Turkey, Iran, and Syria (all of which have Kurdish populations within their borders). The U.S. fears that Turkish action against the PKK would encourage Iran and Syrian action as well. Things are already tense along the Kurdish border with Iran. The U.S., central Iraqi government, and the KRG must decide what is in the best interests of those living in northern Iraq. Whatever action is taken with be difficult, especially for the KRG, but it is essential if stability in the area is to be maintained. For its part, the PKK is not only risking the welfare of Kurds in northern Iraq, it is risking the future of Kurds in Turkey — the very group they claim to be defending. Kurds living in Turkish areas across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan are major recipients of the economic boom taking place Kurdistan. Many of the workers and most of the businesses trading with Kurdistan are from the Kurdish areas of Turkey. If an economic miracle can take place in Kurdistan, there will likely be spillover effects that benefit Turkish Kurds. All this could come tumbling down if the PKK is not kept in check. Every group involved in this situation looks at it from its own unique perspective and each can mount reasonable arguments for why it has responded as it has. The solution to the problem, however, will require all parties being affected by PKK actions to work together. Name calling and finger pointing will only exacerbate the situation.