NITED NATIONS (FinalCall.com) – Since the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) resumed armed violence against Turkey from sanctuaries in the mountains of northern Iraq, ending a threat that resurfaced in 2004 has been at the top of Turkey’s list, say analysts.
Turkish forces bombed Kurdish seperatists three times the week of Dec. 23 and vowed to keep up the air strikes if necessary. The Turkish Army said the rebels had no “chance of success.”
More than 20 U.S.-made Turkish planes hit Kurdish rebel positions Dec. 16, followed by an incursion by 300 troops some 1.9 miles over the Iraq border. The troops later withdrew, according to the international media. Ankara has reportedly amassed 100,000 troops near the mountainous Iraqi border. The BBC reported that as many as 3,000 PKK members are sequestered in the mountains.
The PKK was formed in the late 1970s and launched an armed struggle against the Turkish government in 1984, calling for an independent Kurdish state within Turkey. More than 37,000 people have died in fighting since the PKK declaration, according to the BBC.
The UN refugee agency said almost 2,000 people in northern Iraq fled their homes as a result of operations approved by Turkey’s Parliament in mid-October following the PKK killing of 13 Turkish troops. An additional 12 Turkish troops had died in an Oct. 12 PKK ambush near the Iraqi border.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said the army was doing “what is necessary.”
“We are using our rights based on international law against a terrorist organization,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogen at a news conference in Ankara. Article 51, of the UN Charter states: “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”
“Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is concerned that Turkey has launched air strikes into northern Iraq and that there have been reports of possible civilian casualties,” said Marie Okabe, a UN spokeswoman, in a statement. “Thus far there’s no independent confirmation on developments on the ground,” she said. Secretary General Ban was also alarmed by “the continued incursions” of the PKK “carrying out its terrorist attacks in Turkey,” said Ms. Okabe.
According to the Washington Post, the U.S. provided Turkey with real-time intelligence that helped the military target the PKK. According to Turkish military officials, the U.S. opened northern Iraqi air space for the Dec. 16 bombing.
The U.S., however, has denied approving the air strike. “Well, you know, I’ll let the Turkish government speak for themselves on their actions in this case,” State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said during a Dec. 17 daily press briefing. When a reporter asked if the U.S. opened Iraqi air space, Mr. Casey replied, “I’m not sure what that actually means, but if you want to know about specific military operations or actions, I’d suggest you check with the Pentagon.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked the same question during a Dec. 18 press briefing in Bagdad. “As to the activity last Sunday, this was a Turkish decision and we have made it clear to the Turkish government that we continue to be concerned about anything that could lead to innocent civilian casualties or to a destabilization of the north,” Ms. Rice answered. She added that the U.S., Iraq and Turkey have a common interest in “stopping the activities of the PKK.”
Iraqi officials said 10 villages were attacked and one woman was killed. The PKK said five fighters and two civilians were killed. The Turkish General Staff categorically denied any claims by Iraqi Kurds that civilians were victims in the attack.
How this plays out in the region was the subject of talk in the corridors of the United Nations. Observers say Turkey has the right to protect itself, but destabilizing the region is a serious possibility as are complications in the Turkish-U.S. relationship and regional diplomacy. Turkey has been a major supporter of U.S. policy in Iraq
Prof. Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, explained to The Final Call that the U.S. has done enough on its own to complicate diplomatic relations in the region. “The U.S. apparently supported Turkey in the bombing,” he said.
“On the one hand, people would agree that under international law it’s about how far one goes in pursuit. How targeted were the air strikes, will it escalate the situation? Israel has done the same thing for decades,” Prof. Zunes noted.
Discussions of U.S. involvement with Turkey in its fight against the PKK is just another reminder of how the U.S. invasion of Iraq has already destabilized the region, he added.
For its part, Turkey did everything to gain international support for the Dec. 16 air strikes, said one analyst. Ozdem Sanberk, a former Turkish foreign ministry undersecretary and a foreign policy analyst, noted that Foreign Minister Ali Babacan toured the Middle East months ahead of Dec. 16, telling Arab leaders that Turkey’s security is under threat because of the PKK presence in northern Iraq and any Turkish military action would solely target the PKK and not the people of Iraq.
“Neighboring Iran and Syria have sided with Ankara in its fight against the PKK, and Iran has even hit targets of a group linked with the PKK,” Mr. Sanberk said.
“The Arab world is divided on this,” Mr. Zunes observed. “On the one hand, there is very little sympathy for the Kurds, but some Arab nations are cautious of Turkey’s friendly relationship with Israel. What the Arab states are really saying is, ‘we hope this doesn’t get out of hand,’” he said.
“That group that Iran is fighting is the Pejak, which is being secretly funded by the U.S.,” said Mr. Zunes. “Not only is the U.S. secretly funding the Pejak, many of their fighters are interchangeable with the PKK. So the big question is what is the U.S. really up to?”
Analysts also see Turkey’s cross-border operation as a reflection of post 9-11 international mindsets. “The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against the United States were a turning point,” said Ankara University Prof. Hasan Koni. “Previously, the concept of an assault in a country because there were terrorist elements in its territory did not exist.” he added.
Mr. Sanberk believes cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey concerning the cross-border operation may help mend the troubled relationship between the two nations, which deteriorated with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Turkey, according to Mr. Sanberk, didn’t like U.S. inaction against the PKK, which raised the level of anti-American sentiment as Kurdish rebel attacks claimed Turkish lives.
“The military cooperation the U.S. has finally offered Turkey is a sign that Washington is taking steps to ease tensions with Ankara,” Mr. Sanberk said. The recent steps to remove misunderstandings on both sides show “relations have reached a very healthy point,” he said.