Crisis in Kurdistan - How a Parliamentary Resolution Could Harm Turkey and Iraq

Cross-posted at my blog, Forgotten Countries [/plug]

This is very definitely a bad sign.

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is reportedly planning to introduce legislation in parliament granting the Turkish military authority to launch sustained military operations into Iraqi Kurdistan against PKK training camps, in response to a series of attacks from that group, which amongst other things killed 13 Turkish soldiers in an ambush in Sirnak province.

Whether or not Erdogan uses this authorisation (and reports are that he may not, being less than sanguine about the chances of such operations succeeding) it would nevertheless do much to destabilise the only region of Iraq where a degree of stability is to be found, poison Turkish-U.S. and Turkish-Iraqi relations, complicate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, present the Turkish military with the opportunity to start a war on their own initiative and endanger the (already somewhat threatened) democratic regime in Turkey.

Before we go any further, some background.

Turkey, unlike the other Muslim-majority states in the Middle East, is a secular democracy. It is also one of the few states in the area whose borders were not determined by early 20th century imperial power-politics.

Credit for this can largely be laid at the door of one Mustafa Kemal, better known to the world as Ataturk, who in the aftermath of World War I defeated enemies on all sides to create a new and resurgent nation, Turkey, from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, 'the sick man of Europe'.

Ataturk was very much of his time, fiercely nationalistic but also envious of western modernisation and contemptous of what he viewed as Muslim backwardness. His ideology, Kemalism, continues to be the basis of modern day Turkey.

The trouble is that not everyone in Turkey supports Kemalism. Foremost amongst its opponents are the Kurds. The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group historically concentrated in south-eastern Anatolia and northern Mesopotamia. Nowadays, that are covers parts of Iran and Syria, the northern regions of Iraq and several provinces in south-eastern Turkey. The Kurds got a raw deal from Kemalism which, with its inherent emphasis on Turkish national identity, repressed them as a dissident group. Not unnaturally, they tended to respond to this in a dissident manner.

The most recent manifestation of this is the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party. Founded in the late 1970s, since then it has waged a campaign of terrorism and guerilla warfare against the Turkish state, largely from bases in Syria, Iraq and Iran. It has declared ceasefires on several occasions, but as the Turkish government has always refused to negotiate with it or recognise that its aim of secession has any legitimacy whatsoever they have never lasted.

In 1999 its erstwhile leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was arrested and sentenced to death (the sentence was later commuted to life without parole when Turkey abolished the death penalty). In captivity he renounced violence, just as he had largely abandoned communism when the Soviet Union fell. Without the support of Ocalan, their charismatic figurehead, for their violent campaign, the PKK soon found itself branded a terrorist organisation by those western governments that did not already consider it to be such already.

So far, so standard. Hopeless and violent secessionist movements by oppressed minorities denied their right to self-determination are not rare on this planet. The invasion of Iraq, however, threw a whole new element into the mix.

Since the end of the Gulf War, the No-Fly Zone in northern Iraq had effectively been an independent Kurdish state. This, combined with increasing Turkish pressure on the Assad government, led to a greater reliance on Iraq rather than Syria as a safe haven for the PKK. For this reason, as well as the potential trouble an independent Kurdish state could cause them, led Turkey to be unenthusiastic about the Iraq War and to seriously consider invading from the north as the regime collapsed in the south.

Calmer heads prevailed, but the situation has never been less than tense. Although there have been back-channel communications with Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish region in Iraq, relations are not good and even a threat to invade could lead to further deterioration of relations. It would also place the U.S. in a quandary - either publically force Turkey to back down, alienating a regional power that is one of the few countries in the Middle East that should be a strategic ally, or let it intervene in Iraq, potentially starting a regional conflict (and certainly precipitating an influx of Islamic fighters to combat any Turkish presence) and giving Iran free rein to intervene, on the grounds that Turkey would already be doing the same without repercussions.

I think we can all agree that would be a bad thing. Add to that the fact that most withdrawal plans from Iraq involve either leaving a force in the Kurdish areas or withdrawal to bases in Turkey and you have an added complication. But the problem goes wider than that. It threatens the long-term future of democracy in Turkey.

Turkey is currently governed by the AKP, the Truth and Justice Party. This is a party with Islamist roots which it claims it has renounced. It is pro-European, culturally conservative, denies it has any desire to remove Turkey's status as a secular state and draws much of its support from the poorer eastern regions of the country. Perhaps the best way of thinking of it is as an Islamic variant on the Christian Democrats. Following in its footsteps, similar parties have been gaining ground in other Muslim democracies, most recently in Algeria.

The Turkish establishment, however, remains sceptical of the party. Partly this is due to suspicions that it is really more radical than it lets on, partly this is because the establishment is much more urban and prosperous than the AKP's base voters, who have traditionally had their interests ignored by the Turkish state.

Tensions came to a head most recently with the presidential elections. In April the AKP, who held slightly fewer than the two thirds of MPs needed to elect the president, put forward Abdullah Gul as their candidate to replace the outgoing Ahmet Necdet Sezer. Opposition parties refused to vote, however, making it impossible for a quorum to be reached. Meanwhile, a statement appeared on the website of the Turkish Armed Forces which many viewed as a not very veiled threat of a coup. When no resolution could be found, a new general election was called.

Although the AKP ended up losing seats, it substantially increased its share of the vote and its primary opponent, the CHP, lost considerably more seats. This time a sufficiently large number of MPs participated, allowing Gul to be elected in the third round of voting.

The military was not terribly happy with this. Though it has remained silent, the Chief of the General Staff did not attend Gul's swearing in and there is a palpable tension in the air. The PKK's attack has strengthened the hand of the military, which is rigidly Kemalist and wants action against the PKK, whereas the AKP has suggested that Kemalism may need to be modified to take into account changed conditions in Turkey and is more inclined to attempt to find a peaceful settlement to the Kurdish issue.

Given that the Turkish military has a record of taking independent action and of topplingthosegovernments it disapproves of, the fear has to be that they may attempt to use the coming parliamentary resolution to exacerbate the conflict with the PKK, either by launching an invasion off their own bat or by abusing the rules of 'hot pursuit'. Should Erdogan and Gul try to prevent this, then the army's stance suggests that the government in Ankara might find itself forcibly removed from power. And it's hard to see who that benefits aside from Islamists opposed to even trying to take a parliamentary route.

Be afraid. Things could get much worse.

Tags: Iraq, Islamists, kurds, military coup, rock and a hard place, Turkey (all tags)

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