Turkey is threatening to send troops across their border in to Iraqi Kurdistan:
Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has suggested that a vote could be held next week in Parliament to allow military incursions into Iraq, and Sadullah Ergin, a senior government official, said today that the motion could come as early as Monday, according to the state-run Anatolian News Agency.
On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported from the town of Sirnak that Turkish warplanes and helicopters were attacking positions along the southern border with Iraq that are suspected of belonging to Kurdish rebels who have been fighting Turkish forces for years.
The prospect of military action by Turkey has been raised following a recent upsurge in violence blamed on Kurdish rebels. On Wednesday night, a policeman was killed and six others were injured in a bomb attack in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, the Anatolian news agency reported.
The rebels who winter in the Turkish mountains are often caught by the military, so these attacks are timed to stop the rebels from escaping to their winter safe havens across the border in Iraq so they can be found in the snow this winter. The Turks are also responding to recent attacks by the PKK that killed over 20 Turkish soldiers and a particularly brutal attack in which the PKK executed 13 civilians.
But outside of Turkey (and probably Iran), there doesn’t seem to be anyone who wants to the Turks to go in to Iraq. Not the US, not the EU, not the Russians, and not Iraqi Kurds. So why would Turkey go against such overwhelming international pressure? Mostly domestic politics, mixed with some irritation at the United States that existed well before yesterday’s vote on the Armenian genocide resolution. This problem has been brewing for months, and has less to do with the US than most people probably realize.
Much of the impetus behind this potential foray in to Iraq stems from conflicts within Turkey. For the past several years there’s been intense tension between the pro-democracy, moderately Islamist ruling party known as the Justice and Development Party (Turkish acronym AKP) and what Turks refer to as the "Deep State." Much of the conflict in Turkey is, by normal patterns of westernizing and political Islam, paradoxical. The AKP has come to power against the wishes of the upper middle class and the socially and intellectually secular elites. The electoral base of the AKP is the lower middle class and the nouveau riche owners of small and medium businesses, many of whom have lived in Europe as guest workers, and who mostly come from the Turkish hinterlands, although many have moved to the larger cities. The AKP base identifies with the pious but moderate Islamic orientation of its leaders, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and former foreign minister and current president (elected by Parliament) Abdullah Gül. Erdogan was a popular and effective mayor of Istanbul in the mid-90’s, but during one of the several periods of military intervention in to Turkish democracy, he was jailed and convicted of "inciting religious hatred" for comments extolling Sharia over secular Kemalism, the official policy of secular Turkey since the nation was founded by Kemal Attaturk. The Islamist party in the 90’s was confrontational, but when he resumed his political career in 2001, Erdogan shaped the AKP as a more moderate party oriented toward effective governance, opposition to corruption and economic growth.
The AKP has delivered on its promises of economic growth and clean governance, to the consternation of the secular elites. And interestingly, the AKP has pushed for acceptance in the European Union as a means of extending economic growth. Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicholas Sarkozy have responded by bashing Turkey to great domestic political success, which has contributed to a Turkish backlash against integration in to Europe by the secularists in the "Deep State," especially in the military. But the real tension has less to do with what the AKP has done than with doubts about the true intentions of Erdogan and Gül, who are seen by many as slyly hiding their desire to push Turkey backward, and the biggest issue is one that many in the US just can’t understand on an emotional level but which is one of the biggest issues in Turkey and throughout Europe: the practice of many devout Muslim women to wear headscarves. Women are forbidden to wear head-scarves in universities. Erdogan has called for an end to the ban, while the secular elites have attacked the idea and the military has issued vague warnings that attempting to lift the head scarf ban would be blocked by the military.
Now, to further complicate things, enter the Kurds, the Armenians and the United States Congress.
Turkey has long suppressed the Kurdish minority in the southeast, near the borders with Iraq and Iran. Under the AKP, however, the government has lightened up a bit. And that’s not necessarily good for the PKK or the Kurdish nationalists. The PKK is a secular far left group with Maoist tendencies that’s waged war against the Turkish government for approximately 30 years. In recent years they’ve seen their support fade, especially since the arrest and conviction in the late 90’s of its leader, Abdulla Ocalan. Ocalan is serving a life sentence on a island prison near Istanbul, and has denounced his old ways with the PKK and urged them to take a conciliatory course. And the AKP had done well electorally, picking up support that had previously gone to the Kurdish nationalist parties sympathetic to the PKK. So the PKK’s recent violence could be an attempt to provoke the military and the conservative nationalists in to action and stop the growing support among Kurds for the AKP.
In the context of domestic Turkish politics, what’s good for the PKK is also good for the military and the other elements of the Deep State. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Deep State considers Ataturk, the Kurds, the security forces, the Armenian killings, and the Turkish presence in northern Cyprus all taboo subjects. The AKP is considering constitutional changes that won’t define Turkish citizenship by nationality, which the security forces and military see as a threat to not just Kemalist principles, but as a threat to their dominance over Turkey. Thus, terrorism from the PKK allows the conservative and militaristic elements in Turkey to play up the dangers of relaxing pressure on the Kurds, and allows the military and nationalists to squeeze the AKP with Turks for being too weak against the Kurds, and to squeeze them with the Kurds by resuming the oppression in the southeast. Also, some Turks appear to be pleased to be able repeat the Bush administration’s claim that they’re fighting terrorists in Iraq so they don’t have to fight them at home.
The Kurds are not the only non-Turkish ethnic group with grievances against Turkey. The most famous, of course, are the Armenians, against whom the Ottoman Empire—the predecessor to the modern Turkish state—perpetrated a genocide during WWI, killing an estimated 1.5 million Armenians. There are very few Armenians left in Turkey today, and there are no pending hostilities between Turkey and the former Soviet republic that is now the nation-state of Armenia. But the Armenian genocide—and there is little debate among scholars that the murder of the Armenians should be considered a genocide—has never been acknowledged by the Turks, not even yesterday, after the House Foreign Relations Committee voted out a resolution that would officially declare the mass murder of the Armenians a genocide:
"Our government regrets and condemns this decision. It is unacceptable that the Turkish nation has been accused of something that never happened in history," the government said.
One might argue that this is an inopportune time to push this resolution, which obviously has antagonized the Turks at a time when the U.S. needs their help, or at least acquiescence, while we’re fighting in Iraq. But similar arguments were made throughout the Cold War, as in 1990 when Bob Dole tried to push his bill through the Senate but was stymied by a filibuster led by Robert Byrd. [Look at this roll call; it ain’t pretty.] And the Turks have mounted a massive and incredibly scummy lobbying effort to derail the bill. However, Turkey has done some things recently that have irritated the US government, such as signing an oil and gas deal with Iran and talking about recognizing Hamas. So, the Bush administration is probably inclined to support the Armenian resolution, right? Especially since Bush said this back in 2000:
"The twentieth century was marred by wars of unimaginable brutality, mass murder and genocide. History records that the Armenians were the first people of the last century to have endured these cruelties. The Armenians were subjected to a genocidal campaign that defies comprehension and commands all decent people to remember and acknowledge the facts and lessons of an awful crime in a century of bloody crimes against humanity. If elected President, I would ensure that our nation properly recognizes the tragic suffering of the Armenian people."
But—yeah, you guessed it—the Bush administration opposes the resolution.
But that’s not good enough for the Turks. They’re quietly expressing irritation with the US over the Party For a Free Life in Kurdistan (PEJAK), a PKK spin-off group that operates in Iran which the US appears to be supporting. They’re irritated by this Senate resolution which mostly acknowledges the reality that Iraq will most likely end up some kind of loose federation with significant autonomy for the Iraqi Kurds. The Iraqi Kurds love it, but because it would make permanent the Sunni Arabs’ failure to control Northern Iraq and further weaken the already anemic Maliki-led government, Maliki has said it’s a catastrophe, and it’s generated a major backlash in Turkey and the Arab countries:
Regardless of the intent of the Senate resolution, it has been used to further alienate Arab states, and add strain to already tense ethnic relations inside Iraq. The Iraqi Turkoman Front, a party with close ties to Turkey, took the opportunity to comment on the resolution by claiming it would establish its own region and seek Turkish military support to that end, should partition be implemented.
So that’s a bit of the background. What’s the latest? Well, a little while ago, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the US for "consultations."
"We called back our ambassador to Washington for consultations. It should not be understood that we have pulled him back permanently," a senior Turkish diplomat told Reuters.
In Washington, a State Department official said it was not unusual for an ambassador to be called home for consultations. The official, who spoke on condition he was not named due to the sensitivity of the issue, called it "a fairly limited response."
Comments are closed on this story.