Turkish Raids on PKK should Come as No Surprise

Stephen DeAngelis

December 19, 2007

Over the past few days, Turkey has executed several air and ground raids against the Kurdish rebel group PKK (which has been widely condemned as a terrorist organization). This probably wouldn’t have made much of a splash with U.S. news agencies were it not for the fact that the PKK camps are located in Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The Turks have been threatening such raids for months. The other reason that these raids made the news in the U.S. was the apparent complicity of the U.S. military, which reportedly provided the Turks with actionable intelligence. Complicit or not, the U.S. has certainly made it clear that it supports Turkish efforts to defend itself. The Bush administration made this clear following airstrikes earlier this month [“U.S. Backs Turkey’s Anti-PKK Strikes,” by Umit Enginsov and Burak Ege Bekdil, Defense News, 10 December 2007].

“U.S. support for Turkish airstrikes against separatist Kurdish militants inside Iraq in early December is seen as a concrete step toward putting back on track the Washington-Ankara relationship, derailed mainly by disputes over Iraq. The Turkish military announced Dec. 1 it had hit a group of 50 to 60 militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq earlier in the day, inflicting ‘significant casualties.’ U.S. officials were quick to back the operation. ‘Turkey has a right to defend itself against terrorists, and any decision to use military action is the decision of the Turkish government,’ Lt. Col. Almarah Belk, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said hours after the attack. ‘The United States has been working closely with the Turkish and Iraqi governments to seek ways to find a long-term solution to the PKK issue, and this will continue.’

‘According to our best information, the targets of the Turkish strike were PKK terrorists and infrastructure, not the Kurdistan Regional Government or civilians or villages,’ said Chase Beamer, a spokesman for the State Department’s European bureau. ‘We support Turkey’s efforts to defend itself from the PKK terrorism. As President [George W.] Bush said, the PKK is an enemy of Turkey, Iraq and the United States.’ Relations between the two NATO allies fell to their lowest point in recent years when Turkey threatened in October to send its military into northern Iraq to fight the PKK.
The Iraqi government, of course, takes a dimmer view of these raids, just as would the U.S. if Canada made a bombing run on U.S. territory to attack a rebel group hiding in North Dakota [“Iraq condemns Turkish airstrikes in northern Iraq,” Associated Press, USA Today, 18 December 2007].
“Iraq’s parliament condemned the bombing of suspected Kurdish rebel bases by Turkish jets — an attack that seemed to carry tacit U.S. approval — and denounced the raid as an outrageous violation of Iraqi sovereignty. As many as 50 Turkish fighter jets were involved in the airstrikes Sunday in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq in the biggest attack against Turkish Kurd rebels in years, Turkish media said. An Iraqi official said the planes attacked several villages, killing one woman. The rebels said two civilians and five rebels died. ‘We condemn this outrageous attack on Iraq’s sovereignty,’ Iraq’s parliament said Monday in a statement. Turkey said the attack was aimed at rebels of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and that U.S. intelligence had been used in the bombing. The PKK has battled for autonomy for southeastern Turkey for more than two decades and uses strongholds in northern Iraq for cross-border strikes.”
The United States sits uncomfortably between three allies in this situation. Stated Bush administration policies against terrorism make it impossible to condemn Turkey for its actions; yet at the same time, it is trying to bolster the authority and confidence Iraq’s central government and maintain good relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

“Washington is trying to balance support for two key allies: the Turkish government and the Iraqi Kurds. Despite their apparent support for a limited raid, the United States remains firmly opposed to any major Turkish military operation into northern Iraq — which could disrupt one of the calmest areas of Iraq and run the risk of destabilizing the entire region. In Washington, a Pentagon official said the U.S. military had ‘deconflicted the air space’ in Iraq for the strikes — that is, the U.S. made sure Turkey would have clear use of the skies to enable the bombings. Another Pentagon official said the U.S. military has been sharing intelligence with Turkey, but that he did not know exactly what information was given to aid with the airstrikes or when it might have been given. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the record. Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said the Iraqi government had thought Turkey would coordinate with Baghdad before striking the rebels inside Iraq. He also indicated that civilian casualties showed Turkey had not hit the right targets. ‘What happened yesterday was based maybe on misinformation,’ Zebari said. Masoud Barzani, leader of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, issued a statement condemning the attacks, which he said were ‘conducted with indirect U.S. approval, as defending the sovereignty of Iraq and the Kurdish region is within the Americans’ responsibilities.’ The State Department declined to offer any judgment on the airstrikes, but said the PKK was a threat that needed to be dealt with in a coordinated way by Turkey, Iraq and the United States.”

Turkey followed it airstrikes with a ground incursion yesterday. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who was in Iraq at the time of the raids expressed concern about any Turkish military operations that could destabilize the autonomous Kurdish region [“Turkey’s raids against Kurdish Rebels Unsettle Iraq,” by Scott Peterson and Sam Dagher, Christian Science Monitor, 19 December 2007].
“While the US lends some support to increased Turkish pressure on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Tuesday against ‘anything that threatens to destabilize the north.’ Turkey’s cross-border raids to strike at the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, continued Tuesday as 300 troops entered Iraq overnight. On Sunday, at least 10 jets struck Iraqi villages in the largest attack against the separatists in years. If this pattern continues and a new front opens in the Iraq war, the instability that Ms. Rice spoke of could not only unsettle a relatively calm northern Iraq, but jeopardize already troubled efforts toward national reconciliation. Iraqi Kurds, many of them sympathetic to fellow Kurds of the PKK, condemned the Turkish moves, and Washington’s apparent green light. US forces opened up Iraqi airspace, and reportedly provided real-time targeting intelligence to NATO-ally Turkey regarding the location of PKK militants. Analysts say the attacks will have more negative political impact than positive military results, and will further increase tensions in Baghdad between Iraqi Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni parliamentarians who are struggling to overcome many political differences rooted in sectarianism. But in Turkey, pressure has grown on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to act, as PKK attacks since the late summer have surged against its troops and civilians.”
As I’ve noted in most of my past posts on this subject, none of the governments involved want to destabilize northern Iraq. The economic boom taking place in Kurdistan is dependent on maintaining good relations with Turkey and keeping the Turkish border open for trade. The Turks nevertheless want to keep military pressure on the PKK while the KRG want to pursue a diplomatic and political solution. For its part, the Iraqi central government wants to be kept in the loop so that its authority in this matter is not questioned. The U.S. would just like to see the whole situation go away. The KRG Prime Minister was so upset over the airstrikes and raids (and so convinced the U.S. aided the Turks) that he refused to meet with Secretary Rice during her visit. There is much to be lost and little to be gained by a conflict in northern Iraq. The key to solving the situation, however, is the PKK and it has shown little interest in changing course. I’m convinced that even as political posturing takes place cooler heads will prevail and development in the Iraq’s Kurdish region will continue apace.