The Kurdish Situation Intensifies

Stephen DeAngelis

October 22, 2007

Last week I noted in a post that think are getting tense between Turkey and Iraq (more specifically the Kurdish region of northern Iraq) because of cross border incursion by the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union [Despites Advances, Kurdistan Sits in Shaky Neighborhood]. I wrote: “It’s clear that something must be done. The U.S. certainly wouldn’t tolerate such attacks without taking action and the Turks are aware of that; thus, the cries of double standards [from Turkish politicians].”  Even Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, took notice of the growing tensions between Turkey and Kurdistan. Given his political bent, Stewart then showed a series of clips highlighting President Bush proclaiming that everyone (except, Stewart guessed, Turkey) the right to defend themselves against terrorists. The point I made in the last post on the subject was that Iraqi Kurdistan is caught between a rock and a hard place in trying to deal with the PKK as is the U.S.

The U.S. is desperate to see the economic boom taking place in northern Iraq continue and spread. It knows that the one sure path to stopping it is conflict. As a result, it appears to be applying the double standard noted by Turkey and Stewart. The Kurdistan Regional Government is also determined to foster continued economic growth and realize that good relations with Turkey is essential to that effort. It’s also clear that they have no where near the influence over the PKK (who are Turkish not Iraqi Kurds) as the Turkish government thinks. Last week the Turkish parliament authorized cross border military operations into northern Iraq to deal with the situation. That action caused an outcry from the international community as well as from Iraq. The Turks insisted that it was within Iraq’s (primarily meaning the KRG’s) power to stop such interventions by taking care of the PKK enclaves within Iraq.

Over the weekend, things turned from bad to worse when the PKK mounted another cross border operation that ended up killing 17 Turkish soldiers [“Kurds from Iraq Kill 17 Soldiers in Turkey,” by Amit R. Paley, Washington Post, 22 October 2007].

“An audacious cross-border ambush by Kurdish rebels based in northern Iraq killed at least 17 Turkish soldiers Sunday, ratcheting up pressure on the Turkish government to launch a military offensive into Iraq. … The raid on Turkish soldiers, among the deadliest attacks in recent memory, was carried out by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish initials PKK. The armed group aims to create an independent Kurdish state out of parts of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and western Iran. Turkish officials said 16 soldiers were also wounded in the fighting in Hakkari province, which borders Iraq. Thirty-two Kurdish fighters were killed in subsequent clashes and 10 Turkish troops were still missing, they said.”

Throwing gasoline on the fire, the PKK spokesman indicated they saw and opportunity and took it.

“Abdul Rahman al-Chaderchi, a PKK spokesman, said the Kurdish fighters attacked because Turkish troops were conducting war games late Saturday near the border. He said that the death toll was higher than Turkey reported and that several soldiers were being held prisoner, but he declined to provide precise numbers. ‘They tried to enter the Iraqi lands,” Chaderchi said. “But our fighters have confronted them.’ Senior Turkish military and government officials held emergency meetings Sunday night to decide on a response.”

The Iraqi government was quick to condemn the PKK attacks, but the Turkish government once again reiterated that the Iraqi and KRG governments must do something quickly and effectively or they would mount an effort to deal with the problem itself.

“‘Turkey does not have designs on Iraq’s territory,’ Turkish President Abdullah Gul said after the attacks, according to the Anatolian news agency. ‘However, if Iraq keeps harboring terrorists, Turkey has the right to destroy this.’ At a news conference hours after the ambush, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is Kurdish, ordered the guerrilla fighters to stop their attacks or leave Iraq. ‘We are against all the actions that are done by the PKK,’ he said. ‘And we will not support the PKK. We want the best relations with Turkey.’ But he added: ‘The Turkish army with all its capabilities couldn’t arrest the leaders of the PKK. So how could we do that? It’s a dream that cannot be reached.’ Turkey continued to shell the area along the northern Iraqi border late Sunday, residents and officials said. Some villagers reported that the pesh merga, the military force of the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq, was moving toward the border.”

Whether the pesh merga are moving to deal with the PKK or the Turks is unclear — hopefully, the former. The Bush administration quickly condemned the PKK attacks and called them unacceptable.

“Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government, also condemned the attack but warned against a Turkish offensive into northern Iraq. ‘If this struggle touches the Kurdistan region, then we will defend our citizens,’ he said.”

Anyway you look at it, the attack and subsequent rhetoric has moved the situation closer to conflict. One problem is that Iraqi Kurds are starting to view the Turks, not the PKK, as source of the problem.

“Iraqi residents of the border area braced for more of the violence that has destroyed parts of their villages and forced some of them to flee. Sabiha Khalil, 54, a widowed farmer from the village of Spindar, said the fighting reminded her of the days of Saddam Hussein, when a government campaign killed as many as 180,000 Kurds and drove many more from their homes. ‘Now Turkey is taking Saddam Hussein’s place,’ she said. ‘We were displaced from our village for 10 years, but we have rebuilt our homes and rehabilitated our farms. Now where should we go?’ Suleiman Hamid, 33, a farmer who also lives in Spindar, said shelling on Sunday destroyed several houses and caused his children to wake up screaming. Many of his neighbors have fled, he said. ‘I don’t understand why the Turks are bombing us,’ he said. ‘There is no PKK here. Is their main goal to target the PKK, or just any Kurds?'”

In order to cool the situation down, leaders in the region need to remain focused on the immediate challenges and not permit the rhetoric to push the situation further in the wrong direction. There is much to lose on all sides if the situation escalates into open conflict. Despite past rhetoric, cooler heads have prevailed to date.