Turkey is not bluffing: it will send troops into Northern Iraq if it wants to
In London, from where I write this entry, the Iraq war has a numbing effect. Most people know it is happening, but rarely any longer do they acknowledge it. And after four years of death and destruction on an almost daily basis in a faraway land, they can hardly be blamed for it.
The mood is reflected in British TV news: Iraq does still feature in bulletins, but the reports of carnage normally appear in the middle, the least-watched bit, following all those stories about councils wanting to empty bins less frequently. It’s not that people don’t care, but they are numbed by the news that never differs.
But things are about to change in Iraq. It will not be a change for the better, and it will not come from America’s Congress, with its new multi-billion dollar aid package, or from Iran, with its alleged backing of the insurgency. The change will come from Turkey, which is threatening to invade the north of Iraq. And anyone who remotely understands the region knows that Turkey can – and will – do it.
The predominantly Kurdish region of northern Iraq is a stark contrast to the rest of the country. While British and American troops face attacks by the day, the Kurds have set up a stable, autonomous government, with greater freedom than they ever had under Saddam Hussein. They even have one of their number as Iraqi president. Iraqi Kurdistan is a comfort to coalition forces, but Turkey wants to intervene.
Why? Because, largely unnoticed to the outside world, Turkey is under attack. Attacks against the state and army have been at least monthly occurences since the PKK renounced its unilateral ceasefire three years ago. Yesterday, six soldiers were killed by remote-controlled mine during a land search operation in the southeastern town of Şırnak. Even as I type, Turkish radio said that a state security chief in nearby Tunceli was targeted today in a bomb attack.
Turkey’s army says the attacks come from secret bases over the border in northern Iraq. It accuses figures in the Kurdish administration, and even US military chiefs in the region, of turning a blind eye to their existence. The army chief, Yaşar Büyükanıt, said at a press conference on April 12 that a swift operation was needed to remove the bases and stop the attacks. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has indicated in the last week that he agrees.
To put things in perspective, Turkey’s southeast is not Iraq’s southeast. The attacks are not as frequent, nor as reckless. They target security officials and soldiers, not civilians. The region is not the danger zone it was twenty years ago, and there is little talk of imposing another state of emergency. But none of this justifies the PKK attacks. They are still taking lives, and Turkey wants to stop them.
Both America and the Iraqi government in Baghdad have opposed the idea of a Turkish intervention for months. Both have favoured solving the problem among themselves, and there have been a number of three-way meetings. But the attacks have not stopped, and not a week has seemed to go by recently without television pictures of another flag-draped coffin being buried. No one was hurt in the Tunceli attack, but patience is wearing thin. Amid rising nationalism and anti-Americanism, more people than ever before are saying that Turkey needs to solve the problem alone. And with an election just around the corner, Mr Erdoğan might just agree.
No one doubts Turkey has the capability to strike northern Iraq. Its army, after all, is NATO’s second largest. But it is hard not to feel that the United States is not taking the threat of an intervention seriously enough. It can happen, and unless something changes soon, it will happen. Someone needs to take notice.