It is adapting a pro-active policy line on issues pertinent to combating the separatist terror organization Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Iraqi Kurds' attempts to change the demographic fabric of Kirkuk. Turkey may initiate a limited cross-border military operation in spring. Main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal expressed his support of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan, who said Turkey might conduct a military operation against the PKK if necessary. CHP Deputy Chairman Onur Öymen, speaking at the 'Kirkuk 2007' meeting in Ankara on Monday, recalled that if the US or domestic authorities proved themselves unable to maintain the security and stability in northern Iraq, Turkey's involvement in the matter would be inevitable.
Last week, in a statement on developments in Kirkuk, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül underlined that a fait accompli in the city could result in the spread of the regional conflict. Gül and Chief of General Staff Gen. Yaþar Büyükanýt will pay separate visits to Washington in February. Combating terrorism and Iraq will be the main topic of both visits. The recent shift in Turkey's strategy on Iraq has triggered military activities in the region. Turkey began reinforcing its military presence at Bamemi Base in Dohuk. Fifteen additional heavily armed tanks were transported to the base. Combat forces in Beyttüþþebap and Çukurca towns were deployed at ground zero. Meanwhile, the US, for the first time in three years, brought sixteen F-16 warplanes to the Ýncirlik base. According to British daily The Guardian, the recent activity at Ýncirlik is more related to the US' new Iran policy rather than easing of Turkey's concerns over northern Iraq-caused insecurity and instability.
Turkish foreign policy expert Associate Proffessor Ali Tekin from Bilkent University, while agreeing that Turkey has recently changed its Iraq policy, asserts that the US will not consider Turkey's warnings and determination to address the issue. Meanwhile, the PKK does not expect a cross-border military operation. Inside reports indicate that while pursuing a general strategy change, the PKK does not consider leaving the camps in Northern Iraq because of a prospective Turkish military operation.
Even before United States President George W. Bush announced his new Iraq strategy, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoðan issued hints at a change in his Iraqi policy. The US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, was the first to be informed of Erdoðan's change. "Kirkuk is an Iraqi internal matter. Foreign powers should not intervene," Khalilzad said. But Erdogan replied saying the United States itself was intervening in Iraq.
The new Turkish policy comes after four years of watching from the sidelines. The United States has remained reluctant to approve Turkey's efforts to launch an operation against the PKK, leading Turkey to doubt the US government's sincerity about its fight against terror. When the US told Turkey that there was nothing it could do about the extradition of PKK leader Murat Karayýlan and Cemil Bayýk, Turkey decided to take matters into its own hands.
Days before Erdoðan revealed his new plan, the National Intelligence Organization (MÝT) Undersecretary Emre Taner warned that the recent developments in Iraq posed a strong danger to the Turkish state. Taner's announcement and Erdoðan's change of plan were not independent decisions. Ankara's change had been referred to in the MÝT's 2006 report entitled: "Iraq, terror, Kirkuk and PKK". A previous report (2002) says that PKK military activities increased each year, especially during the months of June and July. According to the MÝT, the PKK committed 1,927 terrorist acts in 2002, mostly between June and July. In the first half of 2006, it committed 1,946 acts of terrorism. The MÝT warns that the figures show the PKK's increasing power, and it poses a great danger to the Turkish nation.
The PKK spends the winter season in camps in Northern Iraq and launches activities in spring, the report says. It seems odd that EU diplomats usually bring up the PKK issue during the winter season, when the PKK is hibernating and there are no imminent signs of danger. Ankara is aware of the situation and is stepping up efforts to review EU policies. Ankara has already communicated to the US that if necessary it would take matters into its own hands and launch an operation to prevent the PKK from using Northern Iraq as a base or for logistic support.
The referendum to be held in Kirkuk has created extreme concern in Turkey. The Turkish government would like the referendum to be postponed. Since the US intervention in Iraq, in order to change the demographic characteristics of the city Kurds have started to burn deed registries and birth certificates in Kirkuk. Despite warnings from Turkey regarding the status of Kirkuk, Northern Iraq's Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told the London-based Dar-ul Hayat newspaper that Kirkuk belonged to Kurdistan. His statements infuriated Ankara. Before the US intervention in Iraq, the Turkish government declared that some sensitive political issues should be regarded as priorities, so as not to cross over Ankara's "red lines." These were: protecting Iraq's unity, leaving control of all natural resources to the Iraqi federal government, and ensuring equal representation of all groups. According to Ankara, the US has failed to honor these guidelines and Ankara has the right to protect its own interests, even if it means a cross-border operation in Iraq against the PKK.
The US distanced itself from Turkey's efforts to launch an operation in Iraq because of Talabani's and Barzani's opposition to such a move by Turkey. However, last week the US Ambassador to Ankara Ross Wilson said, "Every country has the right to protect itself, as long as there is cooperation," hinting that the Bush administration had softened its stance on a cross border operation. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Matt Bryza also affirmed US support for Turkey by saying, "We need to do more to eliminate the PKK presence in Iraq."
When US President George Bush announced his new strategy for Iraq, he also said his administration would help the Turkish and Iraqi governments resolve the problems at their borders. The shift in the US strategy by the new US Defense Minister Robert Gates was interpreted as an acknowledgment that if the new Iraqi strategy was not successful, Turkey would eventually intervene and instigate more chaos in the country, widening the gap between Turks and Kurds. Ankara interpreted this as a green light for a cross border operation to prevent more chaos in the future.
Turkey has been waiting to launch a cross border operation for four years and is keeping its brigades ready at Silopi. The Kayseri Air Brigadiers and Bolu, Eðridir and Foca commandos are ready to go. Experts question whether stationing soldiers before an operation is launched is logical and whether Turkey will push 30 to 60 kilometers beyond its border as it did during the Saddam period. While PKK militants initially built camps at the border, in the last four years they have carried their camps into the very heart of Iraq. According to Turkish intelligence, the PKK has over 5,000 militants in over a dozen camps in Iraq.
Turkey launched the 1992 "Harkur," 1994 "Zeli," 1995 "Steel," 1997 "Hammer," and 1999 "Sandwich" operations, all with the support of Washington, as well as Talabani and Barzani.
Today, Iraqi President Barzani and all the Kurdish groups are strictly against a Turkish operation in the region. They would consider such an action a cause for war. According to the Global Strategy Research Institute, a hawkish Turkish foreign policy think-tank based in Ankara, Turkey has undertaken most of its cross border operations in the spring or fall. To date, Turkey has carried out only one operation in January and four during the summer. This would seem to suggest that Turkey will not launch an operation during the winter, but it might be possible in the spring.