Over 140,000 Turkish troops – almost the same number of American troops in Iraq – are amassing on Turkey’s border with Iraq and preparing for possible intervention against Kurdish guerillas of the Kurdish Workers party (PKK). This comes at a time when the United States does not need the additional problem of a NATO ally invading a seemingly pacified area of Iraq.
Turkish military intervention in northern Iraq is nothing new; it has been happening since at least 1984. I remember when I was in northern Iraq in the mid-1990’s, there was a constant Turkish military and intelligence presence in the country, including an armored brigade camped along the major route between the two countries. Although the Turks were operating in their own interests to control the cross-border operations of the PKK, we welcomed Ankara’s willingness to place troops in or near Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
America’s relationship with Turkey has declined markedly since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. After an initial commitment to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Turks reversed themselves and refused to permit the U.S. Army Fourth Mechanized Infantry Division to move into northern Iraq from Turkey.
The invasion plan called for the Fourth Division –- the Army’s heaviest and most modern armored force –- to transit the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq and attack through what is now known as the “Sunni triangle” toward Baghdad, forcing the Iraqis to split their defenses between the Fourth attacking from the north and the main U.S. Army and Marine Corps force attacking from the south. Not only was the Fourth Division unable to attack from the north, it had to return to the Turkish coast, re-board transport ships and sail around the Arabian Peninsula to Kuwait, offload and follow the main American force to Baghdad.
The inability of the Americans to move combat forces into the Sunni heartland before the fall of Baghdad allowed an escape route for members of the regime who quickly formed the insurgency in this area.
Turkey’s policy reversal, coming after much of the division had already landed and was in the process of traversing southern Turkey, caused a major rift in relations between the two NATO allies. American air forces temporarily withdrew from Incirlik Air Base near Adana and conducted operations from bases in more cooperative new NATO allies Romania and Bulgaria. The message to Turkey: “If you want to be treated like an ally, you have to act like an ally.” Although the rift has somewhat healed, distrust lingers.
The threat of a major Turkish invasion into Iraq follows smaller cross-border raids by Turkish artillery and special operations units. The Turks accuse the Iraqis of not doing enough to deny the PKK guerrillas safe haven just inside Iraq along the mountainous border area.
Iraq’s minister of foreign affairs, Hoshyar Zebari, himself an Iraqi Kurd and former representative of the Kurdish Democratic Party, acknowledged that “Turkey’s fears are legitimate but such things can be discussed - the perfect solution is the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the borders.”
Hoshyar, you and I go back a few years, so here’s the reality—the Turks are not going to withdraw their forces from the border until there is a satisfactory resolution to the situation. They almost certainly believe that the “perfect solution” is the removal of the PKK from northern Iraq. I have been critical of the Turks since the 2003 policy reversal, as I believe it contributed to the rise of the Iraqi insurgency, but this time I have to go with Ankara.
Unless the Iraqis take immediate action to close the border to the PKK and prevent these cross-border operations into Turkish territory, what choice do the Turks have? The Turks view Iraq’s president, deputy prime minister for national security and the foreign minister (all Kurds) as being unwilling or unable to stop the PKK’s lethal attacks being launched from Iraqi territory.
If Baghdad cannot or will not stop it, the Turkish army will. That said, 140,000 Turkish troops pouring over the border into Iraq is a complication neither the Iraqis, Turks nor the Americans need.