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Anyone who has been to Ankara in recent weeks will be more than aware of the siege mentality that is affecting many people in the Turkish capital. Turks talk of a ‘Perfect Storm’, a veritable pressure of several events which have come together to test the resolve of their nation.
The perceived humiliation is on three fronts: first, the civilian and military causalities inflicted by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) coupled with a feeling that many countries, including the US, have wished to ignore the problem; secondly, the vote in a US Congressional committee recognizing a so-called ‘genocide’ towards the Armenian people before modern Turkey even existed; and, finally, the pending Kirkuk referendum, a plebiscite for some regions of Northern Iraq on whether they should be part of Iraqi Kurdistan, which the Turks have refused to countenance.
The ‘Storm’ has caused anger and a fervent desire for action. Diplomatic efforts over the past few weeks aimed at persuading Turkey to show restraint and requests not to enter Iraq and hunt down the PKK seem to be paying off. Or have they? The Turkish Government and military decision-makers may have other constraints and agendas for delaying a full scale invasion.
On the one hand, the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may wish to placate a growing nationalist fervour both among the general population and within some quarters of the armed forces. The resentment and anger is understandable following the latest civilian and military casualties, but Erdogan has many political imperatives that are either stopping him from ordering the incursion or allowing him time for a pragmatic approach to the crisis.
Time, however, is not on his side due to the approaching winter. In two or three weeks time many areas where the PKK (KGK) are hiding will be covered in snow and so will be difficult to operate in effectively. The Army too will be acutely aware of the hostile environment it is likely to find itself in if the order comes after the middle of November. So what is stopping them now?
Several things on the diplomatic front are helping to keep the Erdogan government from giving the ‘go ahead’ to his Armed Forces to mount full-scale hostilities:
- Turkey will be hosting the second round of the Iraqi Neighbours conference in Ankara later this week, when it will not want to be seen as an ‘aggressor’ whilst playing at regional diplomacy. Many of these neighbours will not turn up to the conference if Turkey undertakes active incursions in Iraq itself;
- Erdogan will be visiting the US next week for talks with President Bush, during which he will use the threat of full-scale attacks as a bargaining tool for further US action against the PKK. The US remains a constraint on Turkey despite a general anti-US feeling within the country. Relations with Washington have been strained, but not irrevocably. Despite the undoubted damage caused by the Congressional ‘genocide’ vote, Turkey’s ambassador has gone back to Washington and matters seem to have moved on. It is also looking increasingly unlikely that the motion will get past the full House of Representatives in Washington. Ultimately, Turkey has to weigh up who has more to lose from damaging that particular relationship; this is not likely to be the US.
- Domestic politics will be constraining Erdogan too. The South Eastern part of Turkey has been supportive of the AKP - Erdogan’s ruling party - so much so that it was a large part of his recent electoral success. Economic redevelopment is helping many people in the region and is predicted to rise. If a war with the PKK is protracted and starts to affect many Kurds across the region, this could damage Erdogan. The result will be that the PKK leaders - who have nothing to gain from economic redevelopment - will be able to galvanize support against what will increasingly be seen as Turkish ‘oppression’;
- EU accession talks will become strained not least because those who remain concerned about Turkey’s future ‘European vocation’ will use the incursions as evidence of the country’s ‘lack of suitability’ for membership. This may not in itself be of major concern to Erdogan’s government but it could have a longer term impact on Turkey’s economic reforms. And the incursions will come at a time when the EU issues its annual report on candidate countries. Several EU member-states, in particular Austria and France, may use any hostilities as ‘evidence’ that Turkey should not be accepted. If Turkey wishes to enter the EU, it needs to win the PR war too, and such a victory is by no means assured through a military incursion.
All of these constraints could still be brushed aside should the crisis over the kidnapped Turkish soldiers take a turn for the worse. The longer the soldiers remain captive, the greater the pressure to act. Meanwhile, however, continuing with low-key sorties to attack specific terrorist bases or hide-outs - perhaps with some help from allies - should help placate Turkish public opinion.
Prime Minister Erdogan has to be very careful not to play into PKK traps. Why are Kurdish militants taunting the Turkish military to invade? The PKK knows that any serious Turkish involvement will hurt the Turks and keep the Kurd’s struggle near the top of the world’s agenda.
So, by playing a more pragmatic game with the US, the EU and its neighbours, Turkey can frustrate the terrorists’ agenda fairly well. If Turkey has not invaded on a large scale by the time winter sets in, it is unlikely that it will do so until the spring. That gives Ankara several months to continue with a pragmatic approach to the crisis, while trying to persuade the wider world of the country’s predicament. However, spring may bring its own, new challenges.