Just when the smoke from Turkey’s domestic political conflicts of the past year had begun to clear, another deadly attack by Kurdish separatists on Turkish soldiers has the government threatening military attacks inside northern Iraq. That prospect raises risks for Turkey, Iraq, and the United States. But there are reasons to doubt that the situation is as dangerous as recent headlines suggest.
Turkey accuses Iraqi Kurds of harboring between 3,000 and 3,500 of Turkey’s most active Kurdish militants – the PKK separatist guerillas who are blamed for the deaths of 80 Turkish soldiers so far this year. The trouble reached the boiling point on October 7, when Kurdish fighters killed 13 Turkish soldiers near Turkey’s border with Iraq.
The Turkish public has demanded action, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has responded. On October 17, despite pleas for patience and restraint from Iraq and the US, Turkish lawmakers voted 507-19 to authorize Erdogan to order cross-border military strikes into Iraq at any time over the next year.
Erdogan has sent Iraqi Kurds a forceful message. But, for several reasons, the Turkish military is likely to limit its operations to small-scale incursions and air strikes on specific targets rather than launch an all-out war.
First, the Turkish military has no interest in embracing the risks that come with involvement in Iraq’s sectarian strife. A full-scale invasion might well provoke Iraq’s own Kurdish guerrillas into a prolonged and bloody battle with Turkish forces that can only undermine support for Erdogan’s government at home and abroad.
Second, Turkey’s government hopes to keep the country’s bid to join the European Union moving forward. An invasion of Iraq would bring that process to a grinding halt. EU Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana has made plain that Europe strongly opposes any large-scale Turkish military operation in Iraq.
Third, Turkey is well aware that an all-out attack inside Iraq is exactly what Turkey’s Kurdish separatists want. What better way to damage Turkey than to pull its military into conflict with Iraq, the US, and the EU? Erdogan has no intention of being drawn into that trap.
With all that in mind, this latest move by Turkey’s parliament should be seen more as an ultimatum to Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government to expel the Turkish Kurds and an attempt to persuade the US to use its considerable influence there. That’s hardball politics, not a declaration of war.
The parliamentary authorization itself is carefully worded to underline Turkey’s limited aims. It stresses that Turkey’s military has no intention of occupying Iraqi territory or threatening Iraqi Kurds or their oil infrastructure. An attack would certainly make Iraq’s Kurdish provinces less appealing for foreign investors. But Turkey has no reason to attack the assets of foreign oil companies.
Iraq’s central government is aware of the risks, as well, and is likely to exercise maximum restraint. A limited Turkish strike into northern Iraq would probably elicit little reaction beyond public condemnation and rhetorical assertions of Iraqi sovereignty.
Threats to Iraq’s oil infrastructure around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and other territory under the Kurdish Regional Government’s control are minimal. Turkey’s government knows that any move to shut down the 600-mile pipeline from Kirkuk to Turkey’s Mediterranean port at Ceyhan would have little near-term impact, since most of Iraq’s oil exports flow from the south, hundreds of miles from the country’s border with Turkey.
Furthermore, the Turkish military can increase the pressure on Iraqi Kurds with far less drastic measures. It can close the two countries’ principal border crossing, an important route for food, fuel, and other goods headed for Iraqi Kurds. It could also cut exports of electricity to northern Iraq.
Still, even small-scale military operations would generate risk. If the PKK is able to launch a major attack on troops or civilians inside Turkey, the public outcry might leave Erdogan with little choice but to up the ante.
The issue is complicated further by Turkey’s refusal to negotiate directly with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. Such talks, Turkey fears, would offer tacit acknowledgement that Iraqi Kurds have won a degree of autonomy from Baghdad. That’s a bridge too far for Turkey’s nationalists and its military.
There are risks for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki as well, because Turkish military strikes on Iraq’s northern provinces could undermine the Kurdish support on which his government increasingly depends. Both Sunni Arabs and Kurds already resent al Maliki’s mild reaction to Iran’s recent shelling of Iraqi territory – an attempt to strike at Iranian Kurdish militants fleeing across its border with Iraq.
There are also risks for the US. Most supplies headed for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan move through the Incirlik airbase in Turkey. With the threat that the US House of Representatives will approve a resolution that accuses Turks of genocide against ethic Armenians nine decades ago, this is a particularly inopportune moment for the two countries to be at odds over Iraq.
But, worst-case scenarios aside, a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq can only serve the interests of Turkey’s Kurdish separatists. That’s why cooler heads are likely to prevail. Limited cross-border operations are increasingly likely. A war between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds is not.
Ian Bremmeris President of Eurasia Group, the global political risk consultancy, and author of The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).