May 30, 2007

Turkey: Preparing to Strike Across the Border?

Source: Stratfor
May 30, 2007 22 53 GMT


Summary

Turkey increased its military presence along its border with Iraq on May 30, a day after Turkey's prime minister called on the U.S. and Iraqi governments to eliminate Turkish Kurdish rebel assets in northern Iraq. Considering Ankara's lack of success with its long-standing calls for action against Kurdish separatists receiving sanctuary in northern Iraq, and given the increasing pressure on Turkey's ruling party, Turkish forces could launch a limited operation in northern Iraq. Such a move will complicate U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.

Analysis

Twenty Turkish tanks began traveling from Mardin, near the Syrian border, to Turkey's border with Iraq on May 30. Large contingents of reinforcement soldiers and armored personnel carriers have also been dispatched to the Turkish-Iraqi border. Meanwhile, Turkey's special envoy to Iraq, Oguz Celikkol, said before departing to Iraq to discuss Turkish demands that his government hopes the Kurdish issue is resolved before Turkey decides to take unilateral action. This comes a day after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the United States and Iraq to destroy Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) bases in northern Iraq.

Regional and domestic circumstances have led Turkey to a point where it could take some sort of military action in northern Iraq. Ankara has long issued verbal warnings to the United States and Iraq about the PKK and other Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, but those warnings have not led to any action, in spite of promises Washington, Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) made to Ankara. Recent developments have made conditions even more favorable for a cross-border strike: A U.S. F-16 fighter violated Turkish airspace May 29, which further incensed Ankara, and on May 30, U.S. forces formally gave the KRG's security forces responsibility for security in the three northern Iraqi provinces.

In spite of these developments, the Turks want to avoid confrontation with Washington, their NATO ally. Therefore, any military action the Turks take will be a limited operation.

The United States' dominance of Iraqi airspace makes any serious incursion into northern Iraq problematic -- but Turkish forces can sneak in briefly to carry out a strike when the U.S. air patrols are most distant. Artillery is also useful; Turkish forces would be able to strike some 15 miles inside northern Iraq without ever moving across the border. However, that would not be enough to accomplish the Turks' purposes and could be too indiscriminate a tool. An infantry incursion -- perhaps heliborne or supported by armor -- is most likely. A deep or sustained incursion would involve supply lines and awkward diplomacy; thus, Turkey's best option is to move in quickly, do what damage is intended -- perhaps even take prisoners -- and rapidly move out.

Turkey cannot afford to continue merely issuing warnings when the ineffectiveness of those warnings discredits Ankara and the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party. The AK already faces domestic pressure and desperately needs to improve its standing at home as the country prepares for July 22 parliamentary elections.

Striking Kurdish rebel bases in northern Iraq will allow the AK to garner support at home, especially when liberal and left-wing political forces are accusing the ruling party of trying to undermine the Turkish republic's secular nature, and are stirring up huge protests across the country. The Erdogan government knows that the PKK is likely to launch more attacks. By engaging in cross-border action, the ruling party can counter any potential political fallout from such follow-up attacks by demonstrating that it is taking all the necessary measures against the Kurdish militants.

More important, a cross-border operation could help counter the recent rise in tensions between the AK and the military establishment -- particularly after the recent fiasco over the AK's presidential bid. Thus far the military has had a hawkish stance toward the Kurdish rebel presence in northern Iraq, while the administration has taken a more diplomatic approach. Clearly, the two sides are closer to aligning, as evidenced when Erdogan said May 29 that a cross-border Turkish operation was not off the table. "The target is to achieve results. Our patience has run out. The necessary steps will be taken when needed," Erdogan added.

Erdogan, while still hoping to avoid using the military option, knows that Washington, Baghdad and Arbil will not work to satisfy Turkish demands. Moreover, recent developments are making him look bad; a suicide bombing by suspected Kurdish rebels killed six people in Ankara, and fighting has increased between Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey. Erdogan likely wants to escape the spotlight the recent violence has put him in.

One major issue holding Turkey back is that it does not want a clash with its NATO ally, the United States. Of course, this scenario is less likely since U.S. forces are no longer in charge of security in northern Iraq. Additionally, Ankara can claim that the standing down of U.S. forces has allowed the PKK and other Turkish militant groups even greater opportunity to use KRG-controlled territory as a launchpad for attacks against Turkey.

The Kurds likely will be sacrificed because of a U.S.-Iranian deal. Consequently, the Kurds will push for progress on the Kirkuk referendum. Moreover, the Kurds can act as spoilers to the U.S.-Iranian deal, which gives them some bargaining power they can use to reduce the degree to which they will be short-changed in any final settlement on Iraq.

The Turks would love to see the Kurds sacrificed, which explains their cautious attitude toward military action thus far. But given the U.S. position regarding the Iraqi chaos, Ankara cannot rely on the Bush administration's deal with the Iranians to contain the Kurds. At the same time, the domestic situation within Turkey in light of the coming general elections is forcing the Erdogan government's hand, especially since the U.S.-Iranian deal is unlikely to be in place before Turks go to the polls.

If it decides to launch a limited operation in northern Iraq, Turkey can avoid a direct altercation with the United States, but any cross-border action could create major problems for Washington as the Bush administration enters a crucial phase in its efforts to stabilize Iraq. U.S.-Turkish relations could deteriorate as a result.

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