Why Turkey is wary of Kurdish rebel trap

Turks broadly support a strike into Iraq, but that could play into the hands of the PKK.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As Turkey sends military convoys to its southeast border with Iraq, diplomatic efforts are intensifying to head off a cross-border incursion aimed at crushing the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan traveled to Baghdad and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in London to increase pressure on US and Iraqi forces in northern Iraq to halt a surge of attacks that peaked Sunday with the most lethal guerrilla strike in a decade. Twelve soldiers were killed and eight went missing.

There's broad public support and parliamentary approval for a cross-border attack, but analysts say that a Turkish decision to invade would ensnare it in a PKK strategy aimed at provoking just such an invasion. A Turkish offensive would bring NATO-ally Turkey face-to-face with US and Iraqi Kurdish forces, as well as the PKK. It could also destabilize northern Iraq – the one area of Iraq relatively calm since the 2003 US invasion – and embroil its troops in a quagmire.

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"The PKK wants Turkey to engage in full-scale, extensive warfare – not just with the PKK in northern Iraq, but with the Iraqi Kurdish [forces] and to draw in the US and other foreign powers," says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey expert at the Chatham House think tank in London.

One purpose, says Mr. Hakura, would be to "reenergize their popular base" which has "been on a rapid decline" in southeast Turkey, where ethnic Kurds are broadly sympathetic to PKK aims, but often oppose violent methods.

That PKK strategy is "based on the assumption that the Turkish government is trigger-happy, nationalistic, and willing to take a knee-jerk reaction," says Mr. Hakura. "But the Erdogan government is far more calculating ... and has indicated a clear preference for diplomacy over military action."

Despite the build up of some 60,000 Turkish troops – and repeated assurances from Ankara that Turkey will limit its attacks to PKK targets – so far generals are pushing diplomacy, aware that 24 cross-border operations in past decades have failed to destroy the militants.

Already the crisis has grabbed the attention of Washington, which Turkey accuses of not doing enough to thwart the PKK. President George Bush on Monday contacted Turkish and Iraqi leaders, asking Turkey for restraint, and Iraq for action against the PKK, which the US, European Union, and Turkey all label a terrorist group.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and leader of one of the two main Kurdish parties in northern Iraq, said Monday that the PKK would declare a cease-fire.

The PKK denied declaring a new cease-fire, and said one from June still held. PKK attacks have killed 42 people in the past month, two-thirds of them soldiers. The Turkish military said its counterattack on Sunday against 200 PKK fighters who had come across the border killed 34.

The PKK strategy of drawing Turkey across the border has "failed," because Turkey is not likely to "go into Iraq at this moment," says Seyfi Tashan, director of the Foreign Policy Institute at Bilkent University in Ankara.

Instead, Turkey will step up pressure on the US as well as Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who Ankara believes has done most to provide a haven for the PKK. The two Kurdish leaders say their forces are incapable of forcibly removing the PKK, with Mr. Talabani noting a local sympathy: "We will not hand any Kurdish man to Turkey, even a Kurdish cat."

Turkish closure of the border would deeply hurt Iraq's land-locked Kurdish areas, but would also take a large toll on Turkish traders. Turkish parliamentarians voted 507-19 last week to give authority for a cross-border push, with all 19 votes against coming from pro-Kurdish deputies who favor diplomacy instead.

"We have to have a Damocles sword – that has to be kept, not only for the PKK, but also for PKK supporters like Barzani," says Mr. Tashan, recalling that a threat of war against Syria in 1998 forced Damascus to expel PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was later arrested in Kenya and flown to Turkey. "We will let them see it, that they have to ... get rid of the PKK."

The rebels say they will not be dislodged, but suggested Monday that a diplomatic solution was possible. "If the Turkish state stops its attacks, then increased tensions will be replaced with a combat-free environment," said a PKK statement. "Our movement and people have the strength to defend [but] we prefer to solve the problems by democratic and peaceful ways rather than armed struggle."

The pro-Kurdish Firat news agency quoted a senior PKK commander, Bahoz Erdal, saying that the group held the eight Turkish soldiers as "hostages in the hands of our forces."

Turkish artillery and planes have already been striking northern Iraq, and on Sunday aircraft hit 63 targets in hot pursuit after the raid, according to the military. The purpose of a cross-border operation would be to deny the PKK sanctuary. "We may conduct a joint operation with the US against the PKK in northern Iraq," Erdogan told a Turkish newspaper.

The Chicago Tribune reported that despite previous resistance to the idea, US air or cruise missile strikes are now being considered. "Now the Turks are at the end of their rope, and our risk calculus is changing," the Tribune quoted a US official familiar with Bush's call to Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Monday.

But such a response is not likely to sit well Iraqi Kurds, even though Barzani's peshmerga militia struck a deal with Turkey in the late 1990s to take on the PKK. A further irony, experts say, is how the PKK's tactics have changed as a result of the insurgency in Iraq.

"They have learned, they have adopted very closely the lessons from the Iraqi Sunni insurgents," says Hakura at Chatham House. In the past the PKK staged large attacks with between 200 and 500 fighters against police stations and military installations.

Now "they are using hit-and-run tactics, small cells, mines, ambushes, C-4 explosives, and improvised explosive devices," or IEDs," says Hakura. "Almost half the Turkish military victims this year were killed by mines, rather than in combat."

A closer look at the PKK

What is the PKK?

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) was founded in 1974 as a Marxist-Leninist organization calling for a separate Kurdish state. Under the leadership of its founder, Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK sought an independent Kurdish homeland for the region's 30 million Kurds, of whom 14 million live in Turkey. The ethnic Kurdish region includes eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, western Iran, and parts of Syria and Armenia.

What tactics does the PKK use?

The PKK employs guerrilla tactics, usually relying on bombs, suicide bombers, or small, contained attacks. Their attacks are often directed at the Turkish military and police, but the PKK has frequently targeted civilians. Fighting has been in decline since Mr. Ocalan was captured in 1999 and sentenced to death. His sentence was eventually reduced to life imprisonment in October 2002 after Turkey abolished the death penalty. The commutation was followed by a cease-fire, as well as the withdrawal of rebel fighters from Turkey. Ocalan has since apologized, saying that the PKK will "work for a democratic Turkey, where Kurds will enjoy cultural and linguistic rights" through nonviolent means.

How many PKK are there?

The 3,000 PKK fighters estimated to be based in northern Iraq launch attacks on security and civilian targets in Turkey. Several thousand PKK rebels are also believed to be inside Turkey.

Why now?

Cross-border fighting has flared since spring between Kurdish rebels and Turkish targets, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government is under pressure to pursue the PKK into northern Iraq. The Turkish Parliament last week approved military strikes into Iraq against the PKK for anytime this year. The US government is opposed to this retaliation, despite the PKK's designation as a terrorist organization byWashington, the European Union, and NATO.

Source: Council on Foreign Relations, GlobalSecurity.org, The Political Handbook of the World, Reuters

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