By Ralph Peters
October 23, 2007
The eastern quarter of Turkey isn’t Turkish. It’s inhabited by Kurds, the descendents of tribesmen whom the Greek soldier and author Xenophon encountered in those mountains 2,500 years ago — more than a thousand years before the first Turk arrived.
If a referendum on independence were held today, Turkey’s Kurds, who make up about 20% of its 73 million people, would vote overwhelmingly to secede from the shrunken empire Ankara inherited from the Ottomans. That’s part of what Turkish saber-rattling on the border with northern Iraq is about — the fear that even an autonomous Kurdistan-in-Iraq threatens Turkey’s territorial integrity because the region’s Kurds might view it as the core of a Kurdish state.
For its part, Washington fears a Turkish-Kurdish conflict that would further destabilize the entire region — just when Iraq shows glimmers of hope.
No regional government ruling over a Kurdish minority has ever allowed an honest head count, but estimates give the Kurds a population of 27 million to 36 million, spread across portions of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and the Caucasus. Up to 14 million of these people without a state reside in Turkey.
In addition to its determination to preserve its eastern frontier, Turkey faces internal political challenges that propel the huge Turkish military — with more than 500,000 active-duty troops — toward an intervention in northern Iraq.
The immediate justification for a parliament-authorized move across the border is Turkey’s allegation that the PKK (The Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a Marxist organization that has employed terror, continues to attack soldiers and civilians inside Turkey. The remnants of the defeated PKK, a few thousand men and their families, have taken refuge in Iraq. Turkey claims it wants them handed over — knowing such a course is politically impossible for any Kurdish leader.
PKK a weak threat
Ankara’s allegations suffer under scrutiny. One need have no sympathy for the PKK to recognize that the organization has been shattered by Turkey’s anti-terror campaign. Its aging members encamped in Iraq have begged asylum from their fellow Kurds (who find them an embarrassment). With pressure from all sides for Iraq’s Kurdish officials to “do something” about the rump PKK, the last thing most of its members intend is to give the Turks an excuse to cross the border.
Why attack now?
Because Turkey’s generals are desperate to revitalize their image at home. Humiliated by the repeated electoral successes of Turkey’s Islamist party the AKP, the army, which views itself as the defender of the secular state, has seen its stock decline in the political marketplace.
In the past, the Turkish military would have staged a coup. That remains a longer-term possibility, but there’s now a sense that popular support for military rule would not be as strong as in the past, when Turkey’s economy was moribund and terrorism haunted the streets of Istanbul. The military has been a victim of Turkey’s success.
The generals view a foray into Iraq as a double win — a body blow to Kurdish aspirations and a chance to rally Turks around the flag. Though an invasion would anger the United States, Ankara feels it has Washington over a barrel, given the United States’ need for access to Incirlik Air Base and the criticality of Turkish supply routes and airspace to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
As for Europe’s reaction, the Turks believe it would amount to no more than a few white papers filed away in Brussels.
Over the years, I’ve personally found Turkish generals and diplomats irrational on two subjects: The Armenian genocide (as we saw again in the recent fuss about the House resolution) and the rights of Kurds anywhere to enjoy independence. These topics invariably ignite fiery lectures from Turkish officialdom: The mouths are open, but the ears are shut.
Turks face embarrassment
Yet, a potential problem that the Turkish military does not appear to have grasped is that a move into northern Iraq might not go as smoothly as the generals intend. Well-armed and determined, Iraq’s Kurds would resist any major invasion, and the mountainous region is ideal for defensive fighting. For all the on-paper strength of the Turkish military, it could suffer a significant embarrassment in Iraq.
A military disappointment — it needn’t be a debacle — in Iraqi Kurdistan would profoundly alter Turkey’s internal balance of power. The army has thrived on the perception of its invincibility.
A botched cross-border move would damage its all important image, further empowering the political Islamists, who’ve already subverted many of the laws and values the military inherited from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the father of modern Turkey).
Success would fail
On the other hand, should a Turkish military operation succeed, it could excite a land-grab mentality that could draw in Iran, further destabilizing the region. And a Turkish attack on Iraqi Kurdistan — a remarkably successful experiment in self-government — would incite waves of anti-Turkish terrorism, rather than reduce the terrorist threat.
For their parts, Iraq’s Kurdish leaders seek to build good relations with Ankara, by policing the PKK and granting concessionary terms to Turkish businessmen in the hope that shared profits will reveal shared interests. Nobody — not the PKK, other Kurds, the Iraqi government or the United States — wants to see a Turkish military adventure.
In the end, such an invasion wouldn’t really be about the future of the PKK — which has none — but the future of Turkey. Ankara’s military, pledged to defend the state that Ataturk built from the Ottoman ruins, could thoughtlessly hasten its deterioration and decline.
Ralph Peters is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors and the author of the recent book Wars of “Blood and Faith.”