Ankara's Intentions What Is Behind Turkey's Invasion of Northern Iraq?

Turkey had been warning for months that it was considering an invasion of northern Iraq to go after Kurdish rebels based there. But now that it has happened, many are wondering why now? Could it actually be an invitation to negotiate?


The invasion of northern Iraq by the Turkish army last week shouldn't have come as much of a surprise. After all, back in October the Turkish parliament in Ankara gave its approval for an invasion to put a stop to cross-border raids carried out by the Kurdistan Workers Party. Turkish fighter planes had been bombing PKK targets periodically since December.

Turkish troops moved into northern Iraq last Thursday. But why?
REUTERS

Turkish troops moved into northern Iraq last Thursday. But why?

Still, military sources in recent weeks said that the army would wait until winter's end before deploying any ground troops. Meaning that many were caught off guard when television footage began showing a seemingly endless loop of tank columns, troops and helicopters moving into the snowy mountains of northern Iraq on Thursday night.

As intended, though, the images were misleading. Turkish media immediately reported that two brigades of 5,000 men each had advanced 30 kilometers beyond the border, with plans to stay in the country for two weeks. But sources in the Iraqi government and the United States armed forces said only a "few hundred soldiers" had been deployed by Turkey. Germany's BND foreign intelligence service estimated a maximum of 3,000 soldiers were involved and also predicted a quick end to the mission.

But on Monday, the Turkish military continued firing shells across the border at PKK targets. The Turkish military on Sunday confirmed that eight soldiers had been killed -- bringing the total to 15 since the invasion began -- and that a helicopter had crashed. Kurdish rebels, who have lost 112 fighters since Thursday including 33 on Sunday, claimed to have shot down the helicopter.

The invasion has drawn fire from the German government and the European Union. On Friday, German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Martine Jäger said the invasion carried a "not inconsiderable risk of destabilizing" northern Iraq. She also called on the Turkish government to limit its actions in the battle against terrorism to the scope necessary to protect its own people, while warning against civilian casualties in Iraq.

What's the Strategy?

Meanwhile, the EU's top diplomat, Javier Solana, criticized the military deployment while attending a meeting of EU defense ministers in Slovenia. He described the invasion as "not the best response." Additionally, Krisztina Nagy, spokeswoman for the EU commissioner responsible for membership negotiations with Turkey, called on Ankara to refrain from any disproportionate military action. "The EU understands Turkey's need to protect its population from terrorism and it also says that Turkey should refrain from taking any disproportionate military action and respect human rights and the rule of law," she said.

It's also unclear what strategy Turkey is pursuing with its offensive. The biggest PKK rebel camps, where as many as 5,000 rebels spend the winter, are located close to 200 kilometers from the Turkish border in the Kandil Mountains and are far removed from the military's area of deployment. The posts near the border from which PKK mounts its attacks against Turkey are largely abandoned during wintertime.

A high-ranking official in the Iraqi government responded calmly to the attack on Friday. "I suspect the army is trying to start taking advantage of the mandate to fight it has been given and to legitimize itself with the Turkish public," he told SPIEGEL.

One retired Turkish general speculated to Turkey's NTV news channel that the army may have invaded in order to prevent PKK rebels from moving back to their border installations once the snow melts. But that would only make sense if the army established a long-term buffer zone, which would run contrary to claims by Turkey that it will pull out as quickly as possible.

Another possible explanation is that the invasion is meant as a demonstration of power against the leader of the Kurdish autonomous government in northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani. The Turkish government and army have long accused Barzani of not doing enough to stop the PKK from using northern Iraq as a staging ground for attacks against Turkey. Indeed, they even accuse Barzani of secretly supporting the rebel group.

Under massive pressure from Washington, though, Barzani's peshmerga (Kurdish militias that aren't under the control of the central government in Baghdad) began erecting barriers in December on roads leading to PKK camps in order to make it more difficult for supplies to be transported to the rebel group.

In Ankara, officials do not believe Barzani is cooperating or ever will cooperate with Turkish officials in putting a stop to the PKK. At the same time, Barzani accuses Turkey of using the PKK as an excuse for blocking northern Iraq's political and economic development -- because Ankara doesn't want to accept the existence of an autonomous Kurdish region.

Despite US pressure, there has been little or no progress in recent months in pushing relations forward between Turkey and the Kurds of northern Iraq. The Turkish government continues to refuse direct contact with Barzani because he hasn't fulfilled Turkey's key demand that he extradite the PKK's leader.

A Bitter Defeat for US Diplomacy

Regardless of the exact intentions, the invasion marks a bitter defeat for American diplomacy. Officials in Washington claim they were informed of Turkey's plans prior to the invasion and that they pleaded with Ankara to limit the time and scope of their operation and to cooperate directly with the Iraqis. Still, the invasion has deeply upset the Americans in Baghdad.

For months the White House has sought to convince Ankara of the damage a ground invasion would cause. In unusually clear terms last October, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that an invasion "would create an international crisis and further undermine stability in Iraq."

On Sunday, Gates told reporters during a trip to Australia: "I would hope that it would be short, that it would be precise and avoid the loss of innocent life, and that they leave as quickly as they can accomplish their mission."

An Overture to Negotiations?

Recently, the Turkish government has sought a course of rapprochement with Baghdad and the government of the autonomous Kurdish region in the northern part of the country. And just before last week's invasion, the Turkish National Security Council -- the most important power center in Turkey -- issued conciliatory words, saying it was interested in having good relations with Iraq based on positive developments there. But by the time the Turkish daily Hürriyet could write that Turkey was extending Baghdad an olive branch the next day, Turkish soldiers had already invaded northern Iraq.

At the same time, there are suggestions that the invasion could be an overture to negotiations. In the run-up to the invasion, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan telephoned US President George W. Bush and his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri al-Maliki. Turkish President Abdullah Gül then called his colleague Jalal Talabani in Baghdad to inform him of the plans. Talabani is not only president of Iraq, but also the second most important leader of the Iraqi Kurds after Barzani. It also offered a way of communicating with Iraqi Kurds without having to talk to Barzani. Formally, the Turks contacted him as Iraqi president, but he would also be well-suited as a negotiating partner for future relations between Turkey and northern Iraq.

Ultimately, the Turkish government knows that it can do little to stop the de facto creation of an independent state in autonomous northern Iraq. The current power struggle is aimed at determining how future relations will be shaped.

Turkey says it wants a guarantee that the Kurds won't declare their independence in the foreseeable future and that Barzani won't interfere in the Turkish state's dispute with its Kurdish minority. To prove his good intentions, Barzani would have to do his part to solve the problem of the PKK in northern Iraq.

In return, Turkey could tolerate the autonomous region in northern Iraq and provide economic support. Currently, almost everything that is needed in northern Iraq is supplied through Turkey. Be it gas or construction materials, almost everything comes by semi truck across the border at Habur.

That border hasn't closed, but after last week's invasion, it has been used exclusively by Turkish military convoys.

dsl/spiegel/reuters

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