While Iraqi officials had hoped to use the Istanbul conference as a stage to highlight the sharp decline in violence in Iraq, the meeting was dominated by a flurry of diplomatic maneuverings between U.S., Iraqi, and Turkish officials to avoid a military confrontation in northern Iraq.
Even in the final communique, the issue reared its head, as conference participants called for combating terrorism, "including all efforts to prevent Iraqi territory from being used as a base for terrorists against neighboring countries."
This represents a stark contrast to what has been reiterated constantly by U.S. and Iraqi officials, who have urged Iraq's neighbors to prevent foreign fighters from infiltrating Iraq to carry out terrorist activities that have led to the spiraling instability. Now the reverse exists; Iraqi territory is perceived as being a base for terrorist groups that threaten its neighbors.Turkey Appeased...
The high-level meeting in Istanbul bringing together the foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbors, and representatives of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized states, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference was seen as an opportunity to focus on the issues plaguing Iraq as it tries to rebuild, and to build upon initiatives discussed and adopted by the previous conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh in early May.
Among the resolutions adopted by the participants in the final communique was support for Iraq's "sovereignty, national unity, territorial integrity, Arab and Islamic identity," and for the Iraqi government's efforts to achieve national reconciliation and greater efforts "to protect and assist displaced Iraqis by addressing their immediate and foreseeable needs and safeguarding their safety."
While the focus of the gathering was meant to be on Iraq, the Turkey-PKK affair overshadowed everything. Moreover, Ankara’s threats to carry out a major military operation inside northern Iraq initiated a diplomatic push by the United States and Iraq that led to several breakthroughs that seemed to soothe Turkish anger.
First, Iraq promised to take additional steps to curb PKK activities in northern Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki insisted on November 4 that no terrorist group would use Iraqi territory to stage attacks against one of its neighbors and the Kurdistan regional government followed up those statements by shutting down the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party's (PCDK) in Irbil. The PCDK are believed to have links to the PKK and Ankara has repeatedly called for the closure of all PKK offices in Iraq.
Also on November 4, the PKK released and handed over eight abducted Turkish soldiers to the Turkish government after mediation by both the United States and Iraq. The abduction of the soldiers on October 21 infuriated the Turkish public, which in turn urged the military to take decisive action against the PKK. Turkey's military amassed some 100,000 troops along the Iraqi border after it was given approval by the Turkish parliament for it to conduct operations inside Iraq if need be.
Finally, on November 5, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House. The two sides underscored their determination to work together against the PKK -- which Bush described as an "enemy of Turkey, a free Iraq, and the United States" -- by improving the intelligence-sharing capabilities between the two NATO allies' militaries.
In addition, Bush's pledge to offer Turkey "real-time" intelligence was seen as tacit approval for the Turkish military to carry out "surgical" strikes on PKK positions in northern Iraq -- a compromise allowing limited military action but staving off a major Turkish invasion, which would undoubtedly destabilize the most secure region in Iraq. More importantly, the enhanced intelligence sharing between the United States and Turkey against the PKK may soften Ankara's complaints that the Americans were not doing enough about the PKK.
...But For How Long?
It remains to be seen whether Bush's assurances to Erdogan that the United States will do everything it can to help Ankara curb PKK activities will defuse the crisis along the Iraqi border or only temporarily soothe Turkish anger. Given previously unfulfilled pledges by both Iraq and the United States to crack down on the PKK, it seems unlikely that Turkey will ease the pressure for immediate action completely.
This inability or unwillingness to act was the subject of recent comments by retired Air Force General Joseph Ralston, who until last month was the U.S. special envoy for the PKK issue in northern Iraq. Ralston allegedly resigned in frustration, citing the ongoing failure by Iraq and the United States to take any concerted steps against the PKK. In a November 2 interview with McClatchy Newspapers, Ralston stressed that ongoing inaction on the PKK situation may give Turkey no choice but to take unilateral military action against the group in northern Iraq.
"They're [Turkey] going to have to [intervene], in the absence of the U.S. doing anything," Ralston said. "The U.S. government should have made good on the commitments they have made to the Turks."
However, the mere threat of a military incursion has been a major bargaining chip for Turkey. It was the threat of such an action that led to pressure being placed on the PKK to release the eight Turkish soldiers, as well as the new pledges by Bush and action by the Iraqis. Therefore, it is doubtful that Ankara would take the military option off the table, unless the PKK in northern Iraq was eliminated completely.
But Turkish frustration may not be that easy to mollify. Following Erdogan's meeting with Bush, in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, he reiterated Turkey's impatience and called for concrete steps to be taken to rein in or eliminate the PKK in Iraq. Alluding to military action in northern Iraq, Erdogan insisted that Turkey has the legitimate right to defend itself against terrorist threats.
With winter approaching, the PKK fighters in based in the rugged terrain along the Turkey-Iraq are likely to be much less active. This could give a temporary respite to the tensions until a long-term solution to the PKK issue can be negotiated. However, if the PKK carry out another bold maneuver similar to the October 21 ambush that led to the death of 12 Turkish soldiers and the abduction of eight others, then Ankara may be left with no other choice but to bow to public anger and launch a full-scale incursion.
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