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Turkey and Kurdistan: Where Next?

Commentary, 5 March 2008
The Turkish military incursion into Iraq has been declared a military success, but it will neither solve its internal problems nor contribute constructively to relations with the neighbouring Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

By Thomas James

The Turkish military incursion into Iraq has been declared a military success, but it will neither solve its internal problems nor contribute constructively to relations with the neighbouring Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an armed struggle for a Kurdish successor state within Turkey since 1984, resumed major hostilities on 7 October 2007, crossing the Iraqi border into Turkey and ambushing a Turkish military post, killing thirteen soldiers. This was followed by further deadly attacks and led to the Turkish National Assembly authorising cross-border military action, with the last months of 2007 seeing bombing raids, the deployment of around 300 troops into Iraq, and a major military build-up along the Turkish-Iraqi border.

Operation Sun, launched on 21 February, was on a far larger scale then the manoeuvres of late 2007. It involved the deployment of over 8,000 troops over the border into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq and aimed to ‘continue until all terrorist bases are eliminated.’ Whether or not all the bases of the 3,000 PKK guerrillas have been destroyed is unclear, and indeed unlikely, but it would seem that Ankara has successfully extracted its troops with minimal losses and crucially, without becoming embroiled in a longer war with the Peshmerga, the forces of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.

Interestingly, the withdrawal may actually be a blow to the PKK. There is little doubt that PKK commanders were hoping that Turkish forces would become entangled in a prolonged conflict against the Peshmerga. Indeed, they would have been delighted with Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), declaring that attacks on civilians would be met by ‘massive resistance’.[1]

The United States was particularly aware of the potentially damaging effects that a wider conflict would have on the Kurdish region, which has proven to be one of the few success-stories of regime change in Iraq. The US provided live intelligence to the Turks to try to ensure that strikes were limited to PKK bases, in order to contain hostilities.

Despite the assurance of ‘massive resistance’, there is no desire within the KRG to go to war with NATO’s second-largest army, or risk jeopardising the vital investment from Turkish businessmen that has revitalised regional infrastructure, which has built roads, bridges, hotels and a new airport at the regional capital Arbil. This Turkish investment has been significantly bolstered by a commitment from South Korea to develop oil fields in the region, and provide billions of dollars’ worth of contracts to local companies for further improvements in infrastructure.

However, this revitalisation of the Kurdish region has caused a great deal of concern in Ankara, which sees the increasing prosperity of Iraqi Kurdistan as a precursor to independence. An independent Kurdistan could then provide moral and material support to the Kurds within Turkish borders, who number upward of 15 million. Although a number have successfully integrated into Turkish society, many more live well below the poverty line, with limited cultural and political emancipation, and thus generate a perceived existential threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity.

Current Turkish fears of Kurdish independence would appear to be largely unfounded and it is in the Kurdish region’s best interests to develop good relations with its more developed neighbour. The mainstream, as represented by KRG and Masoud Barzani, is committed to a federal structure and Jalal Talbani, the general-secretary of Kurdistan’s other main political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is the State President of Iraq.

Ankara has made efforts to gain a commitment from the Iraqi central government to move against the PKK, but the Iraqi government has neither the resources nor the political strength to fight Kurdish rebels. However, the KRG, backed by the Peshmerga, does.

Indeed, both the PUK and the KRG have fought the PKK in the past, and this would undoubtedly be the best solution now for Turkey. But currently Ankara will not directly address the KRG leader, Masoud Barzani. This is due to a variety of internal pressures and an unwillingness to implicitly acknowledge the existence of a semi-autonomous Kurdish Region, which would be the result of engaging in bilateral talks.

This snubbing has led to a publicly belligerent attitude from Barzani: ‘You [Turkey] do not want to talk to me in an official capacity. You do not want to accept me as a partner for talks. Then suddenly you want me to take action against the PKK?’[2] The message here is clear: no co-operation without recognition.

The withdrawal of Turkish troops from Iraq represents an end to short-term hostilities, but in the long term there can be no doubt, as US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates seems to understand, that the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state is set to continue until a genuine socio-economic solution can be found.[3]

However, if there is to be progress in the region, then the twin issues of Kurdish aspirations in Iraq and Turkey must be dealt with separately, something that nationalist pressure from the Turkish Army and general public have rendered very difficult. Conflict with, and support for, the PKK within Turkey will continue until Ankara can reconcile its own internal issues and improve its record towards a large minority of its population. But it would be far easier for Turkey to not make martyrs out of the PKK and have them dealt with externally by the Peshmerga within the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Indeed, it is the direct responsibility of the KRG to prevent attacks from its territory into Turkey.

Faced with a restive Kurdish population within its borders, and an increasingly dynamic and prosperous one across the border, Turkish concerns are very much understandable. Given the bloody war of the 1980s and 1990s, they are even to be expected. However, many Western observers argue that it would be best for Ankara, and best for this part of the region, if Turkey were to recognise the existence of the Kurdistan Region and engage with its leadership. Open dialogue would help prevent the danger of armed conflict between Ankara and the Peshmerga, and in the long run, encourage the KRG to deal with the PKK itself, instead of giving them free rein to maraud across the border and attack Turkish soldiers and civilians.

Thomas James


[1] Suna Erdam, ‘PKK guerrillas seek help from Iraq Kurds’, The Times, 25 February 2008.

[2] Interview with the Turkish newspaper Milliyet on October 30, cited in Romano, David, ‘Turkey’s Choice with Barzani; the Gun or the Olive Branch’, in Terrorism Focus, The Jamestown Foundation, p. 4-6.

[2] Suna Erdam, ‘PKK guerrillas seek help from Iraq Kurds’.



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

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