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Iraq: Turkey Proposes Cross-Border Action To Rein In Kurdish Fighters

  • Kathleen Ridolfo

Flying the Kurdish flag Turkish officials have been increasingly vocal in recent days over their desire to launch cross-border operations to rein in Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK or Kongra-Gel) based in the mountainous areas straddling Iraq and Turkey. After months of what they deemed as stalling on the part of the U.S. and Iraqi governments to deal with the PKK, Turkish officials proposed two new plans. Officials first contended that Turkey would carry out cross-border operations with or without the consent of the Iraqi government. They then suggested at a 19 July meeting of the foreign ministers of Iraq's neighboring countries that Iran, Syria, and Iraq join forces to help eliminate the Kurdish group, which is considered by its supporters a rebel group, and by the governments involved, including the United States, a terrorist organization.

Fighting has escalated between the PKK and the Turkish government since May, leaving at least 24 PKK fighters and 30 soldiers dead, and by some accounts, dozens more. The recent spate of terrorist attacks, claimed by the PKK and groups affiliated with it, have targeted civilians and soldiers.

In response, after months of what they deemed as stalling on the part of the U.S. and Iraqi governments to deal with the PKK, Turkish officials have proposed two new plans. Officials first contended that Turkey would carry out cross-border operations with or without the consent of the Iraqi government. They then suggested at a 19 July meeting of the foreign ministers of Iraq's neighboring countries that Iran, Syria, and Iraq join forces to help eliminate the Kurdish group, which is considered by its supporters a rebel group, and by the governments involved, including the United States, a terrorist organization.

Turkey's calls for the United States to drive the PKK from northern Iraq began in the months following the downfall of the Hussein regime in 2003. The United States was slow to take up the mantle, saying that it would not round up PKK fighters until an amnesty offered by the Turkish government had expired. Since then, the United States has been tied up fighting insurgents in other areas of Iraq and has stalled on Turkey's request.

One unidentified U.S. official responded to Turkey's cross-border plans by saying that Turkey has the right to defend itself -- within its borders -- against terrorism, but the United States would not support Turkish military action against the PKK should those operations take place inside Iraq or violate human rights, Andalou news agency reported on 15 July. That statement appeared to provoke a harsh response from the Turkish government and may have contributed to the U.S. "order" for the capture of PKK leaders in Iraq that was announced by Turkish General Staff General Ilker Basbug on 19 July, according to Anatolia news agency.

Regional Implications

The United States would certainly not welcome further turmoil in the region, which could destabilize the relative calm in northern Iraq. Washington would also oppose any action by Iraq's neighbors -- particularly Iran and Syria -- towards the PKK since those countries would likely attempt to send troops into Iraq under the pretense of hunting for terrorists.

Despite that, Iran has voiced its willingness to pursue the issue, NTV reported on 19 July. Iranian Interior Minister Abdulwahid Musavi Lari told the Turkish news channel: "We do not support the relationship between the Iraqi Kurdish [administration] and the PKK in northern Iraq," adding, "There is no PKK camp in Iran and we have fully prevented it." Turkey has claimed in the past that the Iranian regime gave shelter to PKK fighters inside its territory, providing the group with logistical support.

To complicate matters further, Iran is at odds with its own Kurdish opposition groups, which have called for greater national rights. The demands have led to a brutal crackdown by the regime in recent weeks. In one recent operation against Kurds living in northwestern Iran, Iranian security agents reportedly killed a Kurdish activist, bound his body, and dragged it through the streets, Kurdishmedia.com reported on 15 July. Numerous Kurds have been arrested in other security sweeps by Iranian intelligence, and peyamner.com reported on 14 July that intelligence agents have asked private call centers to provide the names of people making telephone calls abroad.

Syria appears less likely to support the plan, as it seems more susceptible to increased pressure -- whether perceived or real -- to appease Kurdish demands for national rights. That pressure prompted the most recent Ba'ath Party conference to pledge to address the issue of Kurdish rights in Syria.

Kurds in Syria have battled the Ba'athist regime for decades in an effort to be recognized as citizens under the law. "Since the advent of Law 93 of 1962, the Syrian government has classified some 160,000 Kurds as 'ajanib,' or foreigners. They cannot vote, own property, or work in government jobs. Another 75,000 or so are simply unregistered, and are known as 'maktumin,' or concealed, having almost no civil rights," Beirut's "Daily Star" reported on 11 July.

However, it remains unclear whether the Syrian government intends to do more than pay lip service to the issue. Syria would be more than likely to support the Turkish plan if the political climate were different. However, given Iraqi and U.S. accusations against Syria for its apparent support of terrorism in Iraq and other international pressures on Syria that forced its recent withdrawal from Lebanon, it is unlikely that Syria would accept the Turkish plan at this time.

Iraqi Government Unlikely To Help

Iraqi officials in the interim and transitional governments have also stalled on the issue of the PKK, contending that while the government wants to assist Turkey (Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari vowed in May to do "all we can" on the Iraqi side of the border), the Iraqi military does not have the capabilities to launch operations in Iraq's vast mountainous regions.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr told NTV on 18 July that Turkey should seek approval from the Iraqi National Assembly if it intends to launch cross-border operations. "We are ready for cooperation against the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] or any other terrorist organization. We need to help each other on the issue," said Jabr, adding: "However, there is a government and parliament elected in Iraq. The parliament can grant permission for Turkey's cross-border operation; it is bound to the parliament's decision."

Even if the National Assembly were to approve the plan, it is unclear if the Iraqi military would have the right to do so under the terms of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), Iraq's interim constitution, which gives Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) peshmerga forces control over areas of northern Iraq. It is highly unlikely that the Kurds would ever support attempts by the Iraqi military to launch operations against the PKK in Kurdistan.

The Shi'ite-led transitional Iraqi government faces other internal obstacles that preclude its approval of the Turkish plan, namely an alliance it formed with the Kurdistan Coalition list following January elections to form the leadership of the transitional government. Support among Kurds for the Shi'ite-led government has waned in recent weeks, as Kurdish leaders, including Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, have claimed that al-Ja'fari has sidelined the authority of Kurdish ministers as he takes steps to monopolize power.

Kurds are also dismayed at the transitional government's failure to address issues relating to the normalization of Kirkuk, a multiethnic oil rich city. The city was the site of a massive resettlement campaign undertaken by Saddam Hussein's regime that uprooted and displaced 1 million Kurds. The TAL calls on the transitional government to "expeditiously" remedy the injustice caused by the Hussein regime in altering the demographic character of certain regions, including Kirkuk. Turkey is likely to become wrapped up in the imbroglio because it supports Iraq's Turkomans (ethnic Turks), who, like the Kurds, claim a majority in the city.

Kurdish Woes

Kurdish activists close to the PKK say that the movement has tried to change its stance to nonviolence, but to no avail. They contend that the government seeks nothing short of their annihilation, despite Kurdish calls for their rights under a democratic Turkish state. "Today, we believe in the diplomatic and political struggle in order to obtain our legitimate rights," Murat Karayilan, the military leader of the PKK, told AP in an interview published on 12 July. He vowed, however, to fight Turkey if attacked. The group called a cease-fire in 1999 with Turkey after its leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured and imprisoned.

The PKK canceled the cease-fire last year, saying the government had not done enough to meet demands for Kurdish national rights. The Kurdish language was banned in Turkey until 1991, and broadcasting in the Kurdish language was only legalized last year. Other reforms have enabled Kurds for the first time to give their children Kurdish names on legal documents.

Karayilan's calls for greater equality come at a time when Turkey is under increasing pressure as it vies for membership in the European Union. The Turkish government has been widely criticized in Europe for its human-rights record with the Kurds, who live primarily in southeast Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at European diplomats last week, telling CNN Turk that he doesn't appreciate their trips to Kurdish areas in the east and southeast of Turkey. "They go to Diyarbakir. Where do they go? They go to Hakkari. Fine, but if you want to hold talks with us, mister, you must do that in Ankara, the capital," Erdogan said.

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