The Strategic Impact of the Turkish Invasion of Iraq's Kurdish Region
March 3, 2008
A visit to Turkey raises a number of questions about Turkey's incursion into the Kurdish area that go beyond its immediate military objectives. There is no doubt that these objectives were real in a narrow military sense. The PKK has steadily built up its presence in Iraq, with the de facto tolerance of Barzani and other Iraqi Kurds. The PKK capitalized on Turkey's failure to offer its Kurds more freedom, regained popular support, and became more lethal. One Turkish counterterrorism expert, analyzing PKK activity at the time of the Turkish invasion of Iraq, estimated that Turkish Kurd public opinion was 50% pro-Turkish government and peaceful politics, 30% limited or stronger sympathy for the PKK, and 15% support for the rising, separate Kurdish Islamist movement.
Limited military action at this time of year had some potential tactical advantages. It allowed the Turkish forces to find at least some PKK forces in villages and areas where they are concentrated because they are more vulnerable in the winter. Turkish forces could attack a range of PKK posts -- it may be too ambitious to call them bases -- in the border region from the area above Zakho to the areas in the northwest and particularly near the junction of the Turkish, Iranian, and Iraqi borders.
Some of these Kurdish post were in the area that Turkey stated it sent troops to. Turkish papers reported the deployment of some 10,000 troops to a depth of some 10 kilometers. Turkish forces may, however, have gone considerably deeper in some areas. Other PKK targets may have been hit that were much deeper in Iraq, and certainly other targets were by air strikes and possible Special Forces, particularly in what the Economist calls the Zap and Haftanin districts.
It seems doubtful that, as Turkish forces claim, the snow and weather prevented PKK forces from rapidly dispersing the moment Turkish air and ground forces attacked, but Turkey seems to have had detailed intelligence and targeting help from the US. It also had months to prepare its own targeting using a steadily improving Turkish HUMINT network in Iraq that is supported by plain clothes special forces. As a result, Turkey may have inflicted enough casualties to affect the PKK's ability to attack this spring, although it is remarkably difficult to attack any guerrilla network to the point that it cannot still carry out large-scale, showpiece acts of terrorism.
Ercan Tavuz also reported in Zaman (Istanbul), on February 29th, that the Turkish army planned to establish 11 temporary security bases in the border area in Iraq to keep the PKK from reestablishing bases in the largely unpopulated area. He reported that PKK posts and bases were concentrated in a mountainous area some 45 kilometers from the border in Hakkari and 18 kilometers from the border in Arnak, and that the latter area had been used as a logistics, training, and support center for the last seven years. The Turkish temporary bases were said to be intended to block the PKK from using facilities in Hakurk, Zakhu, Zeli, and Avarin; and to limit the PKK ability to infiltrate through passages in the Kato and Kupeli Mountains.
Domestic Political Motives
The broader motives behind Turkish actions, however, are far less clear. Turks hotly debate the extent to which the Turkish general staff may have used the attacks to reassert it’s political and leadership status relative to Prime Minister Erdogan.
Others feel that Erdogan has gradually become convinced he cannot deal with the Kurds from a position other than strength and needs to both appease the army and appear more nationalist. A few feel that he has allowed attacks on the PKK because this deferred the issue of dealing with the growing power of Kurdish Islamist groups -- a theory that probably owes more to conspiracy theory than fact.
Experts on Turkey's internal politics are better suited to sort this out. It does seem clear, however, that Turkish military action in Iraq had domestic political as well as military motives for both the government and military.
Strategic Motives and Benefits
Turkey may well have had broader strategic motives. No one I talked to in the Turkish military, and none of Turkey's military analysts, seriously seemed to believe that these attacks could have more than a temporary impact in weakening the PKK. Turkey has, after all, carried out similar and much larger attacks in the past and they have always had only a limited disruptive impact the moment Turkish forces withdrew.
I had to explain the meaning of "whack a mole" to the Turks I talked to, but they got the point immediately. Attacking networks never succeeds if the cadres can replace themselves and there is no political solution to the causes of the fighting. Moreover, there was little feeling that the attacks could stop the PKK from benefiting from the flow of arms and wealth to the Kurdish region in Iraq, and from considerable Iraqi Kurdish sympathy for the PKK.
What the Turks do make clear, however, is that such attacks can:
--Show the US that it must focus on the PKK threat, and that it cannot simply pressure Turkey into waiting, and it must provide some degree of military cooperation.
--Signal to the US and Iraqi Kurds that Turkey will not tolerate Iraqi Kurdish independence, and will become increasing hostile to the US if it does not insist on Iraq's continued unity.
--Show the Iraqi Kurds the cost of support or tolerance of the PKK, that Turkey can strike or escalate again without America halting Turkish action, and that the Iraqi government cannot do more than issue words and declarations.
--Make it clear that Turkey is serious enough to cut the Iraqi Kurd’s economic lifelines to the north, and at the same time show the Iraqi Kurds how important it is to establish a partnership with Turkish firms and cooperate with the Turkish government.
--Warn Syria and Iran that support of either the PKK or Turkish Kurdish Islamist movements is dangerous and Turkey will not be passive.
--Strengthen the hand of Iraqi Arabs in negotiating with a "weaker" Iraqi Kurdish political leadership.
In short, the Turks are playing chess and not just backgammon. Given elements in Turkey may have different mixes of such objectives, but motives go beyond either short-term tactical gains or domestic politics. How successful Turkey will be is another issue. No action takes place without reaction, and all the other players have potential moves of their own.