While the Turkish government has repeatedly urged the United States and Iraq to move against the PKK, political complications, particularly with regard to Iraq's Kurds, have prevented any large operations against the rebel group.
Since 2004, Turkey has warned that it will go after the PKK in northern Iraq if its warnings are not heeded. Despite repeated warnings by the United States for Turkey not to carry out unilateral military actions in northern Iraq, recent indications suggest that Ankara is on the verge of actually doing just that. With thousands of Turkish troops amassed along Iraq's border, a major military operation seems imminent.
On June 30, the Turkish daily "Radikal" reported that Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul warned that a military plan was in place to invade northern Iraq if U.S. or Iraqi forces failed to move against the PKK bases there. While details of the plan were not known, it is believed the Turkish military might try to establish a buffer zone in northern Iraq to curb the rebels' movements.
Ankara is losing patience with the U.S. refusal to move against the PKK, even though Washington has labeled the group a terrorist organization.
Gul's warning came on the heels of comments by Turkish General Yasar Buyukanit, the head of Turkish armed forces, about the need to conduct cross-border operations against PKK rebels in northern Iraq. Buyukanit also indicated that he had requested the Turkish government draw up political guidelines for any sort of military incursion into the region.
The comments by Gul and Buyukanit have been the clearest signs yet that Turkey is planning a major military operation. The threatening rhetoric has been coupled with sporadic, and sometimes unconfirmed reports in the Iraqi and regional press of shelling and limited cross-border military operations by Turkish forces.
However, the threats also come as Turkey prepares for general elections on July 22. The increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Ankara may be partly the result of criticism by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which has been accusing the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party of lacking the political will to move against PKK rebels in Iraq.
The Turkish parliament is currently in recess for the elections, but the cabinet of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to hold a final pre-election meeting on July 9. There is wide speculation in the Turkish press that the cabinet could give the green light for some sort of military operation in northern Iraq.
Pressuring The United States To Act
While Turkey has ratcheted up its threats to intervene in northern Iraq, it has also increased pressure on the United States to crack down on the PKK. In fact, accusations of U.S. failure to curb PKK activities have intensified into outright suspicions in the Turkish press that the United States may actually be aiding the rebel group.
The Turkish media widely reported on July 1 that four former PKK fighters who had "escaped" from a PKK-run base at Mount Qandil in northern Iraq claimed to have seen U.S. military vehicles delivering arms to the camp. The Turkish government said it did not have further information concerning the allegations and the U.S. Embassy in Ankara vehemently denied them.
While the veracity of the allegations by four masked ex-PKK fighters may be somewhat dubious, it could well have been a tactic by Ankara to express its frustration with the United States and to increase the pressure on Washington to move against the PKK.
Turkish forces moving toward the Iraqi border in May (AFP)
Indeed, several Turkish leaders have even indicated that the United States is displaying a certain double standard regarding its commitment to fighting terrorism. The "Anatolia" news agency reported on July 4 that AKP lawmaker Egemen Bagis said Ankara is losing patience with the U.S. refusal to move against the PKK, even though Washington has labeled the group a terrorist organization.
"I cannot argue that we are making sufficient progress with the U.S. against PKK terrorism," Bagis said. "The Turkish nation is losing its patience. The prime minister is holding necessary talks. But we expect our ally [the U.S.] to take action against terrorism as soon as possible, and this is a correct and just expectation."
Washington's Hands Are Tied In Iraq
The United States has indeed shown an unwillingness to move against the PKK, and for good reason. One reason is that Washington is far too focused on stabilizing Iraq to shift valuable resources to mount a serious crack down against the PKK. Pressure from the U.S. Congress to show tangible gains from the surge strategy is immense and growing. At this juncture, it is extremely unlikely that resources would be allocated to northern Iraq to assuage Turkish anxieties.
In addition, with U.S. and Iraqi forces currently engaged in major campaigns against Sunni insurgents, Shi'ite militias, and Al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters throughout Iraq, opening an additional front against the PKK in the north does not seem feasible.
In addition, any aggressive U.S.-led operation against the PKK in northern Iraq risks enraging the Iraqi Kurdish leadership, who may view it as an infringement on their semi-autonomous status. In turn, they may decide to distance the region from the Baghdad government, creating additional political tension.
At the same time, the United States is highly reluctant to pressure Iraqi Kurdish leaders into cracking down on the PKK for fear of antagonizing them. In the chaotic atmosphere of Iraqi politics, Washington can ill afford to alienate its most steadfast ally.
Alienating the Kurds could also lead to serious consequences for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government given its tenuous position. The Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament, has decided to boycott the Iraqi government after an arrest warrant was issued against Sunni lawmaker and Iraqi Culture Minister As'ad al-Hashimi.
In addition, radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr's political movement and the Islamic Virtue Party (Al-Fadilah) have pulled out of the Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance. Any further withdrawals or boycotts could lead to either greater political paralysis or, worse, the collapse of the government.