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Trouble in ‘Kurdistan’ – Options for Petraeus?

Commentary, 23 October 2007
Just as Petraeus's strategy for combating the instability and insecurity in Iraq is beginning to have positive effect, two problems are emerging which could make his task in Iraq more difficult.

It seems General David Petraeus’s bad luck will not run out. Just as his strategy for combating the instability and insecurity in Iraq is beginning to have positive effect, two separate yet related problems are emerging which could make the General’s task in Iraq more difficult.

The first of these concerns the US strategic relationship with Turkey, a key ally in both Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the US Global War on Terror, whose geographical position and logistic infrastructure facilitate the sustainment of US troops in Iraq. Unfortunately for the General, recent Congressional debate over whether to pass a resolution that labels Turkish killings of Armenians during the First World War as genocide has not endeared the US to the Turkish parliament. The French government has already been down this path and although Franco-US relations have been chilly since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, law-makers in DC should have noted the stiff response a similar declaration in Paris drew from Ankara and consequently thought very carefully about the timing of their own deliberation. In the ninety years since the episode in question there have been occasions when the threat of Congressional censure might have exerted influence on Turkey but to raise the issue at a time when Turkey’s support is fundamental to America’s success in Iraq appears foolhardy.

Militarily, Turkey’s importance lies not only in its critical role with respect to the US lines of communication (especially for the airborne delivery of important Mine Resistant Ambush Protection vehicles) but also in its potential as a base from which US forces might conduct an over-watch mission without a substantial footprint in Iraq. In addition, Turkey’s military significance encompasses the capacity of its very large (and overtly nationalist) armed forces to intervene inside Iraq. It is this concern which forms the second of the ‘new’ headaches for General Petraeus – how to stop Turkey’s military responding to terrorist attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) with punitive strikes, raids or a limited invasion of Northern Iraq. Perhaps annoyance with the debate in Congress may have facilitated the Turkish parliament’s formal approval of cross-border military action against the PKK, but such action places at risk much more than a passing spat between politicians or a temporary interruption to the smooth passage of US materiel through Turkey. The real dangers from Turkish military action in Iraq are the discord it might cause in the Iraqi political landscape (precisely when political progress, not division, is fundamental to General Petraeus’s mission) and the challenge such incursions would pose to the Iraqi and multi-national forces which are charged with maintaining Iraq’s security.

In the maelstrom of Iraq the situation in the Kurdish north has been a sea of calm, with relatively little violence and no general unrest. The prospect of Turkish forces igniting instability in an area hitherto benign in character is therefore unwelcome. Whereas attacks from a foreign power might normally unite politicians from opposing parties, the Iraqi parliament has already demonstrated that issues which should encourage consensus (e.g., internal security, good governance and economic prosperity) have been unable to displace parochial concerns and priorities. Therefore, it is possible that rather than unify Iraqi politicians, attacks by Turkey might add to the discord which characterizes the Iraqi political landscape. Politicians from Kurdish parties might call for resistance to external aggression, or be quietly pleased that the PKK is being dealt with by a third party. Those from Shia parties might see an opportunity to criticize the US for not fulfilling its security obligations while others will object to the intervention of Sunni Muslims from Anatolia. Some Iraqi Sunni politicians may see a chance to slate the Shia dominated government for its impotence while others of a nationalist hue could demand action to defend Iraq’s integrity. At a time when General Petraeus is hoping for political progress to ease the violence in Iraq, the addition of a further security issue with political ramifications would only add friction, delay and complexity to the situation.

During the twelve years 1991-2003, coalition air forces enforced No Fly Zones (NFZ) over Iraq, Turkish aircraft regularly conducted bombing raids on suspected PKK targets under the northern zone (above the 36th Parallel). During these attacks, coalition aircraft on NFZ duties had to curtail their own activities to ensure their complete disassociation from Turkish action. This was because the NFZs were ostensibly established to monitor Saddam’s compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 688 (which included a call for an end to the persecution of Iraq’s Kurdish population), so the bombing of Kurds beneath a NFZ in which Iraqi air defences were often targeted by coalition aircraft was an awkward anomaly to the coalition mission. Such raids by Turkish forces caused mild embarrassment and irritating interruption to coalition activity but there was little the Franco-US-British allies could do to stop them. As the northern NFZ could not be policed without basing aircraft in eastern Turkey, the coalition was totally dependant on Turkey to conduct their mission.

Although the Kurds were viewed as opponents of Saddam’s regime, in terms of foreign and defence policy they were of limited value and could not compete with Turkey’s importance to the coalition. However, much the Kurds might complain their plight was insufficient to put relations with Ankara in jeopardy. Besides, the PKK was one of three major Kurdish factions competing for influence, so the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani, now President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq) and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan founded by Jalal Talabani, now President of Iraq) could benefit from a weakening of the PKK. Furthermore, Turkish incursions into Iraq (especially by land forces) were a reminder to Saddam that he had been vanquished and was not able to prevent external intervention. Today, the context to Turkish assaults on the PKK has changed significantly and such attacks would pose a much greater problem to the UN-mandated, US-led coalition in Iraq.

US forces are expending enormous efforts to defeat terrorists in Iraq but have seemingly (and unsurprisingly) taken little action against the PKK. As it does not attack US troops the PKK has received little military priority. Also, there have been relatively few US units in Kurdish Iraq because the level of instability there has been low and the Kurd’s own Peshmerga forces have been largely responsible for maintaining security, so even if the US was disposed to eradicate the PKK in Iraq it has not been postured to do so. But the Kurds have not aggressively opposed the PKK and the continued existence of PKK camps in Iraq is an embarrassment to an American administration which since 9/11 has placed counter-terrorism at the heart of its foreign policies. Meanwhile, Turkey has been subjected to a PKK terrorist campaign and its patience has seemingly come to an end. Turkey would doubtless claim self-defence as the basis for any cross-border strikes and if its forces were permitted to conduct autonomous combat operations inside Iraq it would be difficult to complain if Iran took similar measures in its own prolonged conflict with Iraqi-based Kurdish extremists.

In response to the PKK ‘problem’ General Petraeus has several options, none palatable. He might continue with current military priorities (i.e., do nothing different), allow the Turks to conduct military operations inside Iraq and weather subsequent difficulties. He might divert effort from other priorities toward the PKK in the hope that would dissuade Ankara from cross-border operations, or he could adopt a more adversarial approach with the Turks in an attempt to deter Turkish action. He could press for the government of Iraq, and the Kurds in particular, to do much more to oppose the PKK and finally he could assist the Turks in their mission.

Allowing the Turks to conduct autonomous operations in Iraq might allow the US to distance itself from the activity, but this is unlikely to free it from criticism or mitigate the potentially severe consequences of Turkish attacks in Iraq, especially if any strikes create substantial civilian casualties. Although the Turkish military and intelligence services might have links with elements of the Kurdish population that could provide local human intelligence (HUMINT), Turkey lacks the technical ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) assets, operational experience and array of precision guided weapons (PGMs) available to the multi-national coalition in Iraq. These limitations would not prevent PGM strikes against suspected PKK targets but suggest they would be executed with a greater risk of producing collateral damage.

As for diverting effort from other priorities toward the PKK in order to assuage Turkish concerns, General Petraeus is under considerable pressure to achieve a reduction in US force levels to both demonstrate that the ‘surge’ of early 2007 has been successful and to meet domestic imperatives to return units to the US. As his COIN strategy bears fruit, the hoped for reductions are tantalizingly close but would not be achievable if units had to be diverted to Kurdish areas. Such redeployment would be politically and militarily unacceptable unless progress in Baghdad and its environs was so great that some redeployment to Kurdish areas was possible in parallel with a draw-down in overall troop numbers. Currently, it is unlikely that such a rate of progress could be attained before Turkey felt compelled to act, although the arrival of winter weather in the mountainous region along the Turkish-Iraqi border might reduce PKK activity and allow a delay in Turkish retribution. What is clear is that General Petraeus already has a list of priorities that keeps his forces fully engaged and that any additional responsibilities would be an unwelcome burden.

With regard to deterring Turkey from military action in Iraq, apart from the obvious implications for NATO and Turkey’s strategic relation with the US, it is inconceivable that a situation would be allowed to arise where coalition forces would threaten or target Turkish forces in Iraq. The coalition’s dependence on Turkey is too great and her position as a strategic ally too valuable to jeopardize, so if Turkey is to be deterred from exercising its perceived right of self-defence it is the US Ambassador to Ankara, Secretary Rice or President Bush, not General Petraeus, who must exert the required pressure. Deterrence based on military consequences is not viable.

The option of urging greater efforts on behalf of the Iraqis to address the problem of PKK basing has some merit, but will not succeed without KUP and PUK support. Historic legacies suggest it is unlikely the Peshmerga would fight the PKK on behalf of the Turks. Although sufficient antipathy exists between the Kurds to facilitate such conflict if it was deemed in their own interests, this would be difficult as few Kurds would wish to endanger the economic gains and general stability enjoyed within the area administered by the KRG. However, should it be decided that a move against the PKK could be accomplished without sacrificing progress and security the issue then becomes the capacity of the Peshmerga or Kurdish units within the Iraqi Army to conduct effective operations against the PKK. Even if the Kurds were willing to eradicate the PKK it may not be within their military capability to do so. This would then necessitate US assistance with the attendant liabilities outlined above.

Perhaps the final option, though unexpected, may provide the least unfavourable solution. The use of foreign forces within Iraq is established by UN mandate, but Turkey has a difficulty in maximizing its contribution to the multi-national coalition in Iraq as its contiguous position opens it up to accusations of parochial interference in Iraq’s affairs. Were the PKK a terrorist organization affiliated to Al-Qa’ida or one of Iraq’s insurgent groups then the presence of substantial numbers of Turkish troops along the Iraq-Turkey border would be welcomed, but as the PKK poses no direct threat to Baghdad these forces are seen as a potential threat to the integrity of the Iraqi state. Although reports vary on whether Turkey already has forces inside Iraq those on the border are sufficiently close to intervene if required and would follow an established pattern if ordered to do so. However, the recurring nature of previous Turkish army incursions would not diminish the seriousness of another intervention now that the elected Baghdad government is seeking to exercise national authority.

Fortunately, there is a compromise position which might assuage Iraqi concerns, meet Turkish demands for action, optimize coalition involvement and affect PKK operations. This would be to use coalition assets to facilitate the use of Turkish aircraft in precision strikes against the PKK. Although air operations could not eradicate the PKK they have the potential to disrupt its activities thereby deferring the need for a substantial land-forces campaign to a time when Iraq is more stable and its security forces more capable of addressing the PKK problem. Given the approaching onset of winter, the utility of ground forces in Northern Iraq will be limited by the combination of weather and terrain, so an emphasis on air assets might become necessary anyway. Aircraft strikes or raids could be conducted without raising fears of an invasion of Kurdish Iraq. This area functioned and prospered during the twelve-year NFZ period and there is no reason to suggest that air operations against the PKK would have wider economic or social implications. Provided these operations were conducted with precision they would be the military option of least impact on the KRG and its population. Air attacks would be incapable of defeating the PKK but that would not be their aim.

Instead, as a means of containing the PKK and disrupting its operations an air campaign against the terrorists would minimize Iraqi concerns of a Turkish land incursion, invasion or partition of Northern Iraq and it would allow the government in Ankara to demonstrate that it is taking robust and discriminate action against the PKK; the former would be popular domestically and the latter important internationally. Air operations by the Turkish Air Force (TAF), facilitated by coalition assets which the TAF does not possess (such as ISTAR platforms) would preclude the diversion of substantial land assets to the Kurdish north and provide a degree of technical assistance that would promote precision. Of course, the possibility for collateral damage from air attack would remain but by participating in the TAF air operations coalition assets could reduce that likelihood. Finally, the enhanced capability of the Turkish military to target PKK bases, especially during the seasonal months when recuperation is anticipated, would have an impact on the PKK’s operational effectiveness.

None of these options are attractive but it seems the point to which the US and Iraqi governments could effectively ignore the PKK has passed. Recent events in Washington, Ankara and the week-end’s surge in fighting on the Turkish border ensure that the PKK is no longer operating ‘beneath the radar’. Unless there is a sudden reduction in PKK violence and a seasonal deterioration in the operational environment it is likely that Turkey will feel compelled to take military action in what it views as a PKK haven. Washington’s diplomatic influence in Ankara has been weakened by the Congressional debate on the Armenian episode. Since 2002 Turkey has enjoyed a period of sustained economic growth and has a rough balance of trade with the US so its economic influence is also limited, while with respect to military leverage Operation Iraqi Freedom ensures it is Turkey, not the US, who holds the greater sway.

Unpalatable as it may be, perhaps the pragmatic and most measured way forward is to accommodate Turkey’s intention to fight terrorism by facilitating that intent in a way that limits both its effects and consequences. Just when he might have been growing in optimism, General Petraeus is faced with a potential expansion of instability, deterioration in the political situation and a risk to a key line of communication. He must rightly wait for Washington to exert influence upon the Turkish government but ultimately it may be the General who has to make the difficult decisions which stop the PKK unwittingly unravelling his Iraq strategy.

Paul Smyth
Head, Operational Studies
RUSI

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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