Friday, May 2, 2008
Middle Power Mojo
I got some pushback via email on this post about Turkey, and the idea of formulating American foreign policy to take advantage of the leverage offered by regional "Middle Powers." In particular, the question was raised whether having the same policy as Turkey vis à vis Iran is more important than preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and more generally whether harmonizing policy with our regional allies should trump our own policy goals. The short answer is no.
The longer answer is that the Turkey-Iran example is complicated by the fact that I think we're trying to impose a flawed tactic (sanctions), in order to achieve an unrealistic strategic goal (containment). And the result is that countries like Turkey, India, and Pakistan, to say nothing about China and Russia, are lukewarm at best. Now, I'm not at all naive about the Iranian regime, and I think that it would be a strategic disaster if it acquired a nuclear weapons capacity. Not for any existential threat it posed to Israel, and much less to us (because I think that Tehran is susceptible to strategic deterrence), but for the destabilizing impact it would have on regional and global non-proliferation. More importantly, it's a safe bet that the Turks have no burning desire to see a nuclear-armed Iran. For that matter, neither do the Russians.
So, to walk the whole thing back a bit, I'm suggesting two things. First, and this was the central argument of my post, we should focus on enlisting the key regional leverage points, which I called the "Middle Powers," to do the heavy lifting for us in terms of regional policy, because for a whole host of reasons, the lighter our footprint right now, the better. Second, to do that, we need to start by finding the common policy goals with our regional allies, and use that as the starting point for formulating policy. In the case of Iran, that would be preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, but not necessarily containment. America is no longer in a position where it can impose unpopular policies on its regional allies, so we need to find ways to achieve our goals through generating consensus, not twisting arms.
A third point, but one that is more difficult to standardize, involves identifying regional players who have got their mojo (for lack of a better word) working and piggy back on their momentum. Turkey, for instance, has demonstrated a very impressive ability to achieve its foreign policy goals over the past several years. France under Sarkozy has shown a knack for picking winners. It would be foolish to let pride keep us from taking advantage of our friends' lucky streaks.
It goes against years of instinct and habit, but until we restore both our soft and hard power, American influence might be best applied by enlisting savvy and sympathetic Middle Powers, and then following their lead.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Cheney in Ankara
You'll recall that last month I mentioned an increase in Turkey's troop commitment in Afghanistan and a more active Turkish role in pushing back against Iran's nuclear program as likely chits for the U.S. signing off on its weeklong incursion into northern Iraq. Well, it seems that Dick cheney flew into Ankara today and met with Turkey's president, prime minister and the Army chief of staff to collect on both accounts. And in a further sign of America's diminished standing in the region, he left more or less empty-handed. (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did issue a pro forma declaration urging Tehran to cooperate more fully with the IAEA.)
Now if this were a mob movie, some capo would be busy explaining to the Don in a husky whisper why someone had to get knee-capped, and quick, to keep people in the neighborhood from thinking we'd gone soft. Thing is, if this were a mob movie, chances are Cheney would be the capo sent to do the knee-capping.
So I'll be keeping my eye on this one. Ankara isn't too keen on appearing like Washington's errand boy, so there might just be a short delay for appearance's sake. The NATO summit two weeks from now, for instance, would make a nice, headline-grabbing forum for an Afghanistan announcement.
But if 'No' in this case really means 'No,' that's a pretty big setback for American regional strategy.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Nabucco in Jeopardy, Again
Turkish President Abdullah Gul met with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov yesterday, and while both leaders expressed their ". . .mutual will for improving bilateral economic and commercial relations between the two countries," no agreement was announced on whether or not Turkmeni gas will feed the proposed Nabucco pipeline that would make Turkey a gas hub connecting Central Asia with Southern and Central Europe. For Today's Zaman (Turkey), that meant the two countries "agree to boost economic cooperation." For RIA Novosti, citing a Turkish-language paper, that meant "Nabucco trans-Caspian gas pipeline in jeopardy."
WPR contributing editor John Rosenthal recently wrote about the fact that the logic of the Nabucco pipeline, designed to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian gas, doesn't stand up without Iranian reserves feeding it. Which makes the U.S. State Dept's sudden support for the project surprising, and its criticism of other countries for signing energy deals with Iran somewhat hypocritical.
I suppose it could be argued that participation in Nabucco could function as a carrot to try to lure Iran into adopting a more responsible regional posture. But the thing about offering carrots is that they work best when you're not absilutely dependent on the other party to accept them.
I suppose it's also worth noting that Iraq's Oil Ministry has just announced a tender for a pipeline to Iran, designed to transport Iraqi crude to Iran and Iranian refined products back into Iraq. Something to think about the next time someone argues we invaded for the oil.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Turkey, The Kurds, And Iran
Over at WPR, I spoke with a well-informed European official about the IAEA's Iran report. On a hunch, I asked him what kind of strategic impact Turkey -- which has really stayed on the sidelines of this issue -- could make by actively siding with the West's position. Without hesitation he said it would make a huge difference. In addition to the obvious reasons (Islamic country, regional power, etc.), he explained that Turkey is one of the countries in the region he would be most worried about seeking a nuclear weapons capacity should Iran aquire a nuclear bomb. Although he did not explicitly connect the dots, I interpreted that to mean that by coming down firmly on the side of containing the Iranian program, Turkey would send a strong signal to the rest of the region of their own intentions. That in turn would shore up Western efforts to enlist other regional players to contain, rather than compete with, the Iranian program.
That's important to keep in mind for putting Turkey's Iraq incursion into context. American military commanders emphasized the difference yesterday between the U.S. receiving advance notice of the incursion and the U.S. approving the incursion. But that's a distinction very few people will find convincing, least of all the Kurds, who reminded the U.S. (in the form of a resolution by the Kurdish Regional Parliament) of its obligation to defend the territorial integrity of Iraq. (The resolution also notably called for the closure of Turkish Forward Operating Bases in Iraqi Kurdistan that date back to the 1990's.)
My source categorically refused to speculate on a potential quid pro quo. But should Turkey adopt a more vocal position in opposition to Iran's nuclear program, it would to my mind suggest a priority shift in American strategic calculations in the region, and reflect the extent to which Washington considers the Iranian program a very serious threat.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
Barzani Draws The Line
There are conflicting reports about just how many troops Turkey has sent into northern Iraq, with the general trend being bearish. Initial Turkish TV reports (passed on by the press) put the number at 10,000, citing unnamed military sources. Reuters put the number at 8,000, or two Turkish brigades. Later television reports lowered it further to 3,000, which the Iraqi government today bid down to 1,000, only to be undersold by the American military command in Iraq which claimed that only a few hundred Turkish troops took part. The Turkish military, meanwhile, closed the bidding by warning that "media reports about the scope of the operation were misleading and exaggerated." (If this keeps up, look for reports of a Kurdish incursion into Turkey by tomorrow.)
To my eyes the real story here is still the confrontation between armored troops from Turkey's FOB near Dihok and Kurdish Peshmerga forces. As you can see for yourself with the magic of Google Earth, the Turkish operation has all the hallmarks of a flush and gather operation. (Move out one click and Dihok should appear in the lower lefthand corner of the map. Reports have located the incursion across the Iraqi border from Cukorka, which is in the upper righthand corner. The Turkish FOB is 25 miles northeast of Dohuk, or not far from the pinhead in the center of the map.) The Iraq-based Turkish forces that were turned back by the Peshmerga were in all likelihood prevented from intercepting the PKK who according to Turkish military reports are fleeing towards the south.
KRG President Massoud Barzani immediately left for Dihok to monitor the situation from very close by, while his office released the following statement:
The regional government of Kurdistan will not be a part of the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK fighters. But at the same time we stress that if the Turkish military targets any Kurdish civilian citizens or any civilian structures then we will order a large-scale resistance.
For Turkey, it's a fine line to walk, since the PKK is a guerilla group with popular support in the area. But the fact that the Peshmerga stepped in to keep the Turkish forces on their "observer" bases suggests that Barzani means business.
Cross-posted to World Politics Review.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
Live And Learn
I expressed some surprise yesterday at Turkey's rapid recognition of Kosovo's independence, especially in light of their concerns over Kurdish separatist sentiment. Today I came across these remarks by a "high-level" Turkish diplomat in the Turkish Daily News:
Kosovo and Cyprus are two different cases and we are not trying to take advantage of the former's independence for the Turkish Cypriots. But we naturally cannot stop any third party's drawing similarities between the two.
The diplomat went on to emphasize that Turkey's priority is to proceed with Cypriot reunification talks under UN auspices, and to that end is watching the outcome of the Greek Cypriot presidential elections closely. But their recognition of Kosovo does seem to make more sense now, even if it seems like a pretty fine line to walk, given how closely the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq already resembles a sovereign state.
Meanwhile, to give you an idea of how prickly the Cyprus issue is, while Turkey has recognized Kosovo and the EU as a whole has not (leaving it up to individual members to decide for themselves), Turkey has warned that it will veto any NATO cooperation with the unanimously approved EU support mission being organized for Kosovo because of the presence of a Greek Cypriot contingent.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
It struck me as significant that Turkey has decided to recognize Kosovo's independence. So far, most of the countries that have opposed the move are motivated by fears of setting a precedent for their own sizable minority groups harboring separatist impulses, something that characterizes Turkey's relationship with its Kurd population. The fact that Kosovo is majority muslim plays a role here, as does Turkey's participation in the KFOR mission. There's also the historic legacy of the Ottoman Empire. And the move will surely be covered with the caveat that it's a particular case, not a general rule. But I can't help but think that a whole bunch of ears perked up in Irbil when the news was announced yesterday.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
The World's Reluctant Auxiliary Policemen
According to this Jamestown Foundation report, US-Turkish relations -- which had been thawing recently -- just hit another snag over the US' request that Turkey step up its military participation in Afghanistan. Turkey already has 1,000 troops in the Afghan theater, most of them in and around Kabul, but they're restricted by rules of engagement that limit them to firing in "self-defense". Washington would like Ankara to send in more boots, especially to the south and west where the fighting is going on, and loosen up their trigger fingers.
Ankara isn't too pleased about the request being perceived as a quid pro quo for American intelligence that helped it target PKK camps in Iraqi Kurdistan since last November. Also, with 100,000 Turkish troops massed on the Iraqi border to engage the 3,000-strong PKK guerilla/terrorists in the Qandil Mountains, it's unlikely Turkey can spare too much of its military muscle...
More than anything, this just demonstrates the way in which the failure in Afghanistan is having a very serious impact not only on the region, but also on our relationship with our coalition allies. Robert Gates' two recent sorties excoriating NATO countries for not ante-ing up with needed troops and material serve as further illustration.
And while our unpopular commitment in Iraq definitely complicates the picture and has degraded the Afghanistan mission, the force generation questions that are being raised with our NATO allies extend beyond that particular theater. They are the same questions that France is raising with regard to EU defense (although for its own strategic reasons), and get to the heart of how the EU will define its identity in the coming multi-polar world.
As Hubert Vedrine often puts it, Europe has to decide whether it wants to be a continent-wide Switzerland or a world power. And if it wants to be a world power, capable of advancing its interests and shouldering its share of the responsibility, it has got to not only develop a greater force projection capability (ie. dramatically increased military budgets for the majority of the continent), but also develop the political will to act. Whether that will is expressed through NATO or the EU is another question to be resolved, but it's contingent on answering the first.
Afghanistan might not be the best barometer, because it's been compromised by the Iraq connection. But if they've grown wary of the "world's reluctant policeman", then sooner or later Europe (and "emerging" countries like Turkey, India, and Brazil) are going to have to come up with an alternative.
Update: Click and ye shall find. Apparently I've stumbled on the "collective unconsciousness" meme of the day, since The National Interest has got not just one, but two articles on related subjects (peacekeeping missions and German combat participation in Afghanistan).
Friday, February 1, 2008
Timing Is Everything
As you've probably noticed, between fighting off a flu bug and working on a couple of articles, I haven't been as active as usual in following the news. So it could be I've just missed something. But a quick Google search seems to confirm that no major American news outlet has picked up on the story of the Bush administration submitting a nuclear energy cooperation deal with Turkey to Congress. In the meantime, Turkey has announced that it will be opening bidding for construction of its first nuclear energy plant in February.
Update: Meanwhile, Turkey's energy minister just suggested that Turkey could finalize its gas deal with Iran -- whereby Iran would serve as a transit link for Turkmenistan gas destined for Turkey, and Turkey would develop Iran's South Pars gas field for European delivery -- next month. The deal is strongly opposed by Washington, and I'd assumed that the move to certify Turkey for nuclear cooperation was in part meant to serve as a counter-offer. Stay tuned.
Friday, January 25, 2008
Talking Nuclear Turkey
You wouldn't know it from the American press, but President Bush just cleared the way for a nuclear cooperation agreement with Turkey that had been on ice since 2000, submitting it to Congress for approval on Wednesday. The deal, signed under the Clinton administration, had been stalled by a subsequent finding that certain Turkish "private entities" posed a proliferation threat. That threat has been addressed by Turkey, according to President Bush in his message accompanying the bill to Congress.
This is a very significant move, part of a larger initiative I've written about before, designed to help Turkey secure its energy supply, and to keep it from slipping further out of the West's sphere of influence and into energy-based tactical alliances with Russia and Iran. The nuclear angle will become even more central to that effort given the difficulties encountered in moving the EU's Nabucco pipeline project forward.
The deal does not allow for the transfer of sensitive technology or data, and the Secretaries of State and Energy as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission all signed off on the updated Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement (NPAS). Still, the timing of the Bush administration's announcement seems suspect, coming as it does on the heels of a meeting between President Bush and Turkish President Abdullah Gul where energy policy figured prominently, as well as on the eve of Turkey's call for tenders for the construction of its first reactor. It also comes in the immediate aftermath of Sibel Edmonds' accusations, reported widely in the English and Turkish press but ignored Stateside, that Turkey was the longstanding beneficiary of nuclear secrets funneled out of Washington.
The agreement is being submitted for disapproval, which means it will take a Congressional majority within the next ninety days to keep it from taking effect. And the bulk of the NPAS is classified, so it's unlikely we'll ever know just who the "private entities" are, what they were doing, and what's been done to remedy the situation. So despite Turkey's strategic importance to American regional interests, it seems like a bit of media attention on the issue might be worthwhile.
Monday, January 21, 2008
Pipeline Diplomacy, Redux
This little item got buried over the weekend, but it's a pretty significant development. Russia just signed a major pipeline contract with Bulgaria which, combined with the imminent deal giving Russia a controlling interest in Serbia's largest gas and oil company, tightens Russia's grip on the Balkans' energy supply. Russia will now be able to pipe gas directly to the European market, bypassing Turkey as a transit point altogether.
Meanwhile, the EU's Nabucco project, whereby gas from Azerbaijan and Iran would be transitted through Turkey to the continent, has been bogged down by disputes over financing, transit routes, and the Iran nuclear standoff. With Russia having already locked down Turkmenistan's entire annual gas production and already in possession of the major supply lines, any hope for diversified European gas sources just grew much slimmer.
How Turkey reacts to these developments will be very significant. They've been stalling on a deal to develop Iran's gas reserves in order to entertain the US' offers of becoming a regional energy hub for Iraqi and Azerbaijan gas and oil reserves. The problem is that Iraq is far from stabilized, and so far no acceptable route has been found for the Azerbaijan supplies. Should Turkey decide that one tactical energy alliance in hand is better than two in the bush, it could have a dramatic impact on the region's strategic realignment.
And history, when it gets around to the Iraq War, may very well decide that while Bush and the neocons were emptying the American treasury to conquer the last of the dwindling oil reserves, Putin and the mullahs were turning a profit off of locking down the gas supplies.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
I once wondered whether the loss of Turkey might end up being the worst strategic outcome of the Iraq War. It looks like that was a bit premature, as American-Turkish relations have thawed out considerably in the aftermath of last November's meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Erdogan. A great deal of that has to do with the operational agreement they reached to help Turkey target the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.
But if the PKK is the high profile issue that drove the headlines, the subtext of this rapprochement is the "Turkey-USA-Iraq trilateral energy working group", a seriously underreported initiative on the part of the Bush administration to win back Ankara's goodwill. Basically it amounts to an attempt to pry Turkey away from its flirtation with the Russian-Iranian energy-based tactical alliance with the promise of a central role in the development and distribution of Iraqi oil and gas reserves. It's also part of a larger package dating back to last March by which Turkey would become a regional energy hub connecting the European gas grid with Eurasian supplies, and making Turkey the point of transit for 6-7% of the world's daily oil consumption by 2012.
But it gets more interesting. Turkey has long had plans for developing a domestic nuclear energy program. Apparently there are now discussions in the works for turning it into a regional uranium enrichment hub. A meeting this Friday in Instanbul on the matter will be attended by representatives of the IAEA, the US, Russia, France and the UK.
Of course, a lot of the plan depends on whether Turkey and the US manage to address the PKK issue without alienating the Kurds, as well as on whether the US can keep Iraq from falling apart. But all in all it's a deal that ought to keep Ankara happy.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Contrary to what an article I cited yesterday claimed, The New Anatolian reports that Russia did in fact increase its gas deliveries to Turkey to make up for the shortfall resulting from the shutdown of its Iranian pipeline. It also reported that following discussions between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Iranian President Ahamdinejad, Iran's deliveries should be back to normal come Monday.
Still, there are a lot of reasons to think this whole episode had more to do with regional jockeying than with the weather, although as always with pipeline diplomacy, that served as an excuse. Not much mention was made in the American press of the American proposal that Turkey serve as a regional energy hub for Iraqi and Eurasian energy traffic, but I think it's a huge development, central to the way the Bush administration envisions the short-term strategic alignment in the region: using a combination of energy-poor Turkey and energy-rich Iraq and Azerbaijan to counter Russia's influence in Eurasian energy markets and Iran's expansion in the Middle East.
The sticking point had been the PKK, but the Kurds are above all else businessmen. And since Turkey is already the largest investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, they've got a lot of incentive to let Turkey and the US take care of the PKK, so that afterwards they can all take care of business.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
Sending It Down The Line
Just before New Year's, Turkmenistan shut down the gas pipeline supplying Iran with 5% of its domestic consumption. The reason was ostensibly technical malfunctions, but the malfunctions have oddly enough not yet been repaired. As the shutdown coincides with a fierce cold front that has gripped the region and sent temperatures plummeting, Iran in turn all but shut down the pipeline that supplies Turkey with roughly the same amount of Iranian gas that Iran imports from Turkmenistan. Russia, which has in the past made up Turkey's gas shortfalls, in this case not only refused, but suggested it would be forced to reduce its deliveries as well, due to a supply shortage.
The entire episode demonstrates either, a) the ways in which weather can impact on international relations; or b) the complex energy calculus underlying, and at times working at cross-purposes to, some of the strategic re-alignments in the region. And for a number of reasons, not least of which being that this is not a weather forecasting site, I'm going to go with "b".
For a little background, Russia recently secured a contract with Turkmenistan for its gas reserves. The deal was considered a serious blow to American and Western European hopes for securing Turkmenistan's gas supplies independently of Russia. It was also part of what some suggested was a broader cartel strategy by which Russia and Iran would carve up the gas market: Western Europe for Russia; Asia for Iran. Tehran's imminent pipeline and purchase deal with Pakistan, as well as its negotiations with China and India to develop domestic gas and oil fields can be understood in this context.
But the same deal between Russia and Turkmenistan is also the source of this week's rolling pipeline shutdown, because Russia agreed to pay twice the price that Turkmenistan gets from Iran, and the "technical malfunctions" notwithstanding, it's no secret that Turkmenistan is looking to renegotiate with Tehran.
As for Turkey, it's also no secret that both Iran and Russia were counting on taking advantage of recent tension between Ankara and Washington to forge closer relations with Turkey. Both Iran's decision to pass the gas shortage down the line and Russia's decision to sit on its hands coincide with the recent rapprochement between Ankara and Washington, culminated by President Bush's warm reception of Turkish President Abdullah Gul two days ago at the White House. The visit was the occasion not only to reaffirm America's strategic relationship with Turkey, but also to roll out a very ambitious role for Turkey as a regional energy hub for both Iraqi and Eurasian gas and oil reserves.
As the episode demonstrates, none of these tactical alliances are stable. The entire region is in a flux, and it's not at all clear how things will settle in the long run. The uncertainty, while volatile and unfamiliar, can also be used to our advantage, should we adopt an intelligent and flexible strategic approach. Our enemies and rivals of today might turn out to be, if not our friends of tomorrow, at least useful leverage points.
One thing is certain. There's a bunch of Greeks freezing their souvlakis off who had nothing to do with this whole mess.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Playing Both Sides
A few days ago, the Turkish Daily News reported (and Ha'aretz followed up) on an Israeli-operated drone system that the Turkish air force is using to target its strikes against the PKK. The leased Heron UAV, along with its Israeli operating team, is a stopgap measure put in place as a result of delivery delays in a deal between the Turkish air force and Israel Aerospace Industries. The planes, ordered in 2004 in a deal reportedly worth several hundred million dollars, were scheduled to be delivered in October, but have been delayed until at least next year.
The report demonstrates the significant challenges posed not only by Turkey's hot conflict with the PKK but also by its cold conflict with Iraqi Kurdistan. Like the US, Israel is trying to play both sides of the border, developing security ties with Iraqi Kurds at the same time that it's trying to maintain its traditionally close relationship with Turkey. And like the US, Israel is trying balance Turkey's demands for security co-operation against the PKK with a desire to avoid alienating the Kurds, who are paying customers sitting on lucrative oil reserves.
In the long term, whether or not the US and Israel will be forced to pick a side will depend on just how far towards an independent state the Kurds are determined to go. Turkey also has enormous trade and development investments in Iraqi Kurdistan and has every reason to seek cordial relations. The Kurdish parliament just agreed to another six-month postponement of the Kirkuk referendum, which kicks a potentially explosive can a bit further down the road.
But in the short term, the major sticking point is how to deal with the PKK. And Turkey's heavy-handed winter air campaign against PKK mountain positions risks putting everyone on the spot.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Turkey bombs PKK camps in northern Iraq, a spokesman for the Peshmerga militia declares that they'll defend Kurdish civilians in the event of an incursion, and what looked like a successfully resolved crisis creeps back into the red zone.
Meanwhile, air attacks being the most inflammatory and least effective method of counterinsurgency, you've got to wonder what's happened to flip the switch in the Turkish decision-making circles that they'd basically toss aside six months of skillful diplomacy for what amounts to playing with matches in a powder keg. A stable Iraqi Kurdistan currently occupies at least the top three positions on America's foreign policy priority list, so if the Turks are trying to force us into making a longterm strategic choice between them and the Iraqi Kurds, they seem to be going about it in a way, and at a time, that guarantees we choose the latter.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
According to a spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government, Turkey sent 300 troops into a "deserted mountainous area" in northern Iraq overnight. A Turkish official reported that the troops were sent as permanent reinforcements for the forward operating bases Turkey has maintained in the area since 1996. FOB's that have generally functioned to locate PKK positions for artillery and air strikes. Here's the takeaway quote from the article:
Abdullah, the spokesman for the regional Kurdish government, also criticized the operation and cautioned that Turkish forces should "be careful not to harm civilians" who might be living in the area.
"If the Turkish military conducts limited operations against the rebels, this is a problem of their concern," he said. "But if this ... leads to harm for civilians, we will absolutely be against that and reject that."
So there's the red line for just what the Kurds will tolerate. And it's a red line that Turkey is almost certain to cross should it insist on launching air strikes on PKK mountain camps rendered unreachable by ground troops due to winter conditions.
Having followed this story closely since this spring, I can't help but conclude that Turkey is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory here. They patiently used a blend of sabre-rattling and diplomatic initiatives over a period of six months to gain American and Kurdish cooperation in their fight against the PKK. What's more, the winter is traditionally a time of reduced PKK activity due to the conditions in the mountains. Even if there were isolated PKK attacks, they would only have lent added legitimacy to an effective ground operation launched next spring.
Given all that, the decision to launch airstrikes seems awfully short-sighted.
Monday, December 17, 2007
As much as anything else, Turkey's latest airstrikes on PKK camps or Kurdish villages (depending on who you believe) demonstrate why any country relying on air power as their primary method of counterinsurgency is asking for trouble. This is doubly true when the targets are inaccessible mountain locations where it's difficult to get independent verification of one's claims.
It also violated the principle component of what made the working arrangement to deal with the PKK acceptable to everyone involved, namely reasonable deniability. Targeted precision raids based on American intelligence are one thing. Attention-grabbing strikes comprised of twenty to fifty F-16s sent out in waves up to 100 km into Iraqi territory are quite another. Especially when Iraqi airspace is guaranteed by America. (Note to the American ambassador to Turkey who issued a statement denying that Ankara got an American go-ahead: The idea of deniability does not mean denying things that are obviously undeniable. It's means doing things in such a way that a denial seems at least somewhat plausible.)
According to The New Anatolian, Ankara plans on doing this all winter long. Good grief.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Hard To Please
The Turkey-PKK crisis has cooled down quite a bit since last it made front page news, mainly because President Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to have found the ideal solution: the US would help Turkey target pinpoint strikes on PKK bases in Iraq's Kandil Mountains by providing actionable intelligence, the Iraqi Kurds would isolate the PKK from their supply and support base within Iraqi Kurdistan, and everybody would act like everything was hunky dory.
Only trouble is, two days ago, State Department spokesman Chase Beamer complained that the Kurdistan Regional Government wasn't doing enough to rein in the PKK, and today Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan made the same claim. Which is hard to understand in light of this (lengthy) excerpt from the Beamer article:
Under diplomatic pressure from both Ankara and Washington, the regional Kurdish administration in Iraq has started announcing new measures against the PKK almost every day. Following the Turkish military's operations over the weekend, the largely autonomous Kurdish region's peshmerga security forces positioned reinforcement troops near the border in order to prevent PKK infiltrations into Turkish territory. Heavy armament, cannons and armored combat units have also been sent to the area near the border, the Cihan news agency reported on Monday from Qanimasi, northern Iraq.
Peshmerga forces have been on constant guard particularly near the Kandil Mountains, which is a strategic settlement area for the PKK terrorists as well as the northern Iraqi cities of Zakho, Begova, Qanimasi, Amedi, Batufa, Bamerni and Choman, Cihan reported. Only villagers living in nearby villages are allowed to cross into the area after being searched thoroughly by the peshmerga forces deployed there, peshmerga officials said. Small-scale operations are also carried out to curb PKK movements.
The measures, coupled with increased security on the Turkish side of the border, appear to have confined the PKK to the mountainous region, according to Cihan. Over the weekend, an Iraqi-Kurdish official said the PKK, unhappy with the Iraqi Kurdish administration's recent measures to curb its supplies, is a threat to the Iraqi Kurds.
"The PKK is trying to destroy us," said Fazil Mirani, secretary-general of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). "We have fought for 50 years and secured some achievements. We have no intention of giving them up because of the PKK."
For what it's worth, Barzani is the hotheaded President of the KRG who earlier this year threatened to intervene in Turkey's internal affairs should Turkey interfere in the Kirkuk referendum. So the fact that the Secretary General of his political formation is basically cutting the line on the PKK is pretty significant. And the deployment of Peshmerga units to the border not to repel the Turks but to contain the PKK is a 180° turnaround from even a month ago. I'm not sure just what the folks in Ankara were hoping for, but they do seem to be a bit demanding on this one.
[And if you're thinking that the main reason I wrote this post was to put the names "Chase Beamer" and "Ali Babacan" in the same sentence, you wouldn't be all wrong.]
Friday, November 30, 2007
When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with President Bush in Washington to discuss the PKK three weeks ago, northern Iraq was in a state of high alert, with rumors of war swirling and tensions at the boiling point. At the outcome of the meeting, President Bush had promised to take concrete steps to address Turkey's grievances, and Prime Minister Erdogan basically agreed to hold off on plummeting the only stable region in Iraq into conflict and chaos.
So where do things stand now? Kind of a mixed bag. On the positive side, Germany just extradited two PKK militants back to Turkey, which is a strong symbolic gesture considering that one of Turkey's grievances was that no one seemed to be taking their terrorist problem very seriously. In particular, the Turks had complained about western European countries allowing known agents of the PKK to operate with relative impunity, despite the PKK being on the EU's list of terrorist organizations.
It also seems like the Iraqi Kurds, and in particular hardliner Massoud Barzani, have actually decided to crack down hard on the PKK, setting up checkpoints along the arteries leading south from their mountain camps to prevent them from re-supplying. As a result, a report last week had the PKK attempting to re-locate their base of operations into Iran. But since the environment is no less hostile there, another report today suggested they are trying to move their camps to an Armenian-controlled region in Azerbaijan.
Both of these developments, when combined with American forces providing the Turkish special forces with actionable real time intelligence, would seem to have obviated the need for a Turkish cross-border operation.
So why a mixed bag? Because despite the progress, the Turkish Prime Minister's office two days ago authorized the army to conduct just such an operation. You'll remember that the Turkish parliament authorized the use of force last month, which is what brought this lingering crisis to the front burner. Erdogan's authorization could be interpreted as the final green light the military needed before engaging in an operation of their choosing.
There's no guarantee they will actually do so. The Kandil mountains where the PKK bases are located are already a difficult theater of operations. Everything I've read indicates that the winter weather makes them all but impenetrable. On the other hand, perhaps the Turkish military is motivated by the desire to pen the PKK in before they have a chance to re-locate their bases. Either way, this situation just went from "wait-and-see" to "keep your eyes peeled".
Thursday, November 15, 2007
See No Evil, Hear No Evil
Turkey's military has acknowledged receiving "real time" American intelligence that will help it target pinpoint strikes against the PKK in northern Iraq, while denying reports that it had already begun to carry out air strikes. Meanwhile, representatives from five political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan travelled to Istanbul to meet with Turkish officials. So it looks like there's been at least some movement since the meeting between Erdogan and Bush ten days ago. And I suspect that in the next few weeks we're going to get scattered reports of limited Turkish strikes on PKK positions which will either be denied or overlooked by all parties.
The key person to watch will be Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He's consistently been the most confrontational voice among Iraqi Kurds, responding to Turkey's threats and warnings with provocative declarations aimed at tripping all of Turkey's red flags on the Kurdish question. The Turks have for their part categorically refused to officially recognize Barzani as anything other than a "tribal leader". So if they now manage to reach a working compromise, it's safe to say the PKK hurdle has been cleared for now. If not, stay tuned.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
You remember those eight Turkish soldiers who were taken prisoner by the PKK in an attack three weeks ago? The incident raised Turkish-Iraqi border tensions to crisis level and precipitated an urgent American effort to defuse the situation. The eight were eventually released after being held two weeks in Irbil (so much for the PKK not operating with impunity in Iraqi Kurdistan), a release negotiated by representatives from the US, Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government.
But yesterday, after a weeklong military investigation, they were arrested and charged by a Turkish court martial with disobeying orders. Two were additionally charged with "desertion to a foreign country" (hard to understand since Turkey adamantly opposes any claims of the Kurds to nation status), and one also saw a charge of "not fulfilling the necessities of civil duty". They face a minimum of five and a maximum of twenty years in prison.
There's been suggestions that the charges are based on the soldiers' Kurd ethnicity. The entire episode seems to suggest that whatever happens with regard to the PKK crisis, the underlying tensions between Turkey and its Kurdish minority (to say nothing of Iraq's, Syria's and Iran's) are from being resolved.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
The recent meeting between President Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was eagerly anticipated, since it was expected to determine whether or not Turkey would launch a cross-border incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan. As usual with such eagerly anticipated meetings, the outcome was largely anti-climactic, producing pretty much the exact same "carefully worded statements" afterwards that both sides had been issuing for the week or two leading up to the meeting.
In this case, that amounted to Erdogan demanding concrete American steps to address the PKK problem and refusing to renounce Turkey's right to defend itself against the hybrid terrorist-guerilla organization, and Bush providing his assurances that America was taking concrete steps to address the problem and firmly repeating his conviction that invading Iraq to prosecute a Global War on Terror would almost certainly drag the entire region into violent upheaval.
So it should come as no surprise that the Turkish military was somewhat underwhelmed by what the meeting actually accomplished and is adopting a wait and see attitude towards the promises Bush made, what they call a "test of sincerity":
The military leaders want to see first and for all (sic) sincerity from the Americans on intelligence sharing... The quality of the intelligence to be given to Turkey will show the sincerity of Washington, they stress. They said such instant intelligence should allow the Turkish forces to utilize the information for operational purposes...
Among other gestures that would prove Bush's sincerity, the Turkish military would like to see four or five PKK leaders (included on a wanted list shared with the US in the past) actually turned over. Now this would seem to be a problem, seeing as how Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, one of the more moderate Kurdish leaders, recently declared that he wouldn't even hand over a Kurdish cat to Turkey. Interestingly enough, though, American forces just liberated nine Iranian prisoners held in Iraq, among them Iranians who had been captured while on a diplomatic visit to Iraqi Kurdistan. In addition, Iran just re-opened its consulates in Irbil and Sulaymaniyah (where some of the prisoners had been captured).
Now the two developments might be entirely unrelated. Or, given the fact that the Kurds loudly protested the detentions when they took place and have long enjoyed fruitful relations with Iran, the moves might be part of a larger deal to defuse the PKK issue. If four or five PKK leaders just happen to turn up in Turkish hands in the next week or two, with only symbolic protests from the Iraqi Kurds, I'd wager on the latter.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
The Line Starts Here
This one slipped under my radar yesterday, but add Turkey to the list of countries in/near the Middle East pursuing a civil nuclear program. They're looking to get three reactors up and running by 2015. Unlike some of the other countries queued up already, Turkey actually has limited energy resources. But the whole move towards civil nuclear programs in the region seems to have reached a tipping point. The question pretty soon won't be whose got one, but who doesn't.
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
In addition to military cooperation and intelligence sharing to fight the PKK in northern Iraq, President Bush promised Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to take some steps to address "transit issues" and "issues with money". What he's referring to is the difficulty Turkey has had convincing the EU to take more aggressive action on the PKK's representatives and front groups operating in Europe. According to a report in Today's Zaman, for example, France has had a policy since the Jospin government of refusing to extradite French-based PKK agents, allowing several of them to disappear despite being on an Interpol "red list" and under police surveillance. Another was able to leave the country and eventually fly, via Vienna, to Iraq:
French and Turkish experts on the PKK file attribute the French government’s attitude toward the PKK to a “political decision” made during the socialist government of Lionel Jospin in 1998. The socialist government had decided not to extradite the PKK militants, even if there were international arrest warrants for them, on grounds of “capital punishment, human rights violations and torture” in Turkey. Turkish requests for extradition and diplomatic notes issued since 1998 are still waiting to be taken into consideration by the French Justice Ministry. Although Turkey has abolished the death penalty and implemented reforms in human rights, the French attitude has not changed. In other words, while it recognizes the PKK as a terrorist organization and condemns its terrorist attacks, France still condones the presence of the terrorist organization in its territories.
The article goes on to say that France "seems to be changing its attitude". Bush's success in getting more such attitude adjustments from our European allies could very well play a role in determining the outcome of the PKK crisis. Good thing we have such an abundance of goodwill over there.
Update: Or over here, seeing as "over there" is where I am.
Friday, November 2, 2007
Options On The Table
You've got to hand it to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not only does he have the coolest name of any current head of state that I know of, he's also managed to navigate the PKK crisis pretty damn skillfully. Between Turkish public opinion calling for all out war, the military revving their engines at the border, the Kurdistan Regional Government basically thumbing their noses at him, and the American military commander for the region announcing as recently as last week that he'd do "absolutely nothing" to intervene, you'd have thought an incursion was all but inevitable.
But while letting the sabres rattle, Erdogan never stopped calling attention to the limits of what a military response could accomplish. It looks like he's going to get what he needed using the threat of war -- or a "cross-border operation" as he prefers to call it -- without actually having to resort to one. Hopefully someone in Washington is paying attention.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
It took six months, 100,000 troops massed on the border, and the threat of an invasion, but Turkey has finally started getting some cooperation on the PKK question, both from the US and the Iraqi Kurds:
"We have given them more and more intelligence as a result of the recent concerns," said Defense Department Press Secretary Geoff Morrell...
He did not say specifically when the increase started or how the intelligence was being gathered.
But the military in the last week or so has sent manned U-2 spy planes to the border region used by rebels, said a second defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about it on the record.
The official also said that the U.S. military saw a battalion of several hundred Peshmerga - the militia of the Kurdish Iraqi regional authorities - moving toward the border over the weekend. That could represent a notable change from last week when the top U.S. military commander in the area said he was not aware of any Kurdish attempts to rein in the PKK.
The next major benchmark comes on November 5, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Washington to meet with President Bush. The outcome of that meeting should determine whether and how aggressively Turkey will pursue economic sanctions against the Kurdish north. But between the Turkish military's announcement that no invasion would take place before the meeting and the onset of winter in the Qandil mountains, it looks less and less likely that Turkey will resort to force to resolve the issue.
Monday, October 29, 2007
Turkey And The Mullahs
A short while ago, in a post about the damage we've done to our strategic alliance with Turkey, I made the mistake of suggesting that one of the dangers of alienating Turkey might be to see that country slide into theocracy. A reader left a comment to the effect that there's little likelihood of that happening. This Dissent interview with Seyla Benhabib, a Turkish political scientist, confirms that analysis:
...I don’t think that the AK Party wants a theocracy. They are carrying out an incredible experiment and it is unusual for some one who is a democratic socialist like myself to be supporting, and watching very carefully, a party like them. But we are all watching carefully because they also represent a kind of pluralism in civil society which is absolutely essential for Turkey.
So I don’t fear an Islamic theocracy in Turkey. I don’t think that the Turkish people want an Islamic theocracy and I don’t think that the AK party wants an Islamic theocracy. There have always been some elements who may have dreamed of this but I can’t see it happening...
Benhabib also briefly addresses the extent to which Turkey might serve as a model for other Arab Islamic states. Remember that the failure of the secular Arab nationalist movement, of which Turkey was an early example, directly led to the emergence of the Iranian-style Islamic revolution throughout the Arab world. And it's against the backdrop of this latter movement's inability to free the Middle East of Western influence that Osama Bin Laden's brand of Qutbism has taken root.
So inasmuch as Turkey -- as a healthy, secular democracy with a modernized economy -- represents the alternative to what the jihadists offer, the question is an important one. Benhabib is optimistic, specifically as regards Syria, whose improved relations with Turkey could serve as an incentive for Bashir Assad to open his country up a bit to the world.
In other words, while Andrew Sullivan is correct that a Turkey-Iran-Syria re-alignment would certainly deal a blow to American regional interests, it wouldn't necessarily result in a three-headed theocratic hydra. In fact, the opposite assumtion, that Turkey could function as a moderating influence on both Syria and Iran, is entirely plausible.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Ehud Olmert offered an apology to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting last week in London for any inadvertant violation of Turkish airspace during the Sept. 6 airstrike on Syria, and any "affront" that may have resulted. Aside from being Olmert's first public coments on the raid, the apology doesn't really advance the story at all. The Times of India story does include this quote fom the IAEA's Mohamed ElBaradei, though:
To bomb first and to ask questions later I think it undermines the system and it doesn't lead to any solution.
Can't find much to argue with there.
To my mind, ElBaradei is one of the the most compelling public figures of our time. By all rights, the guy should be poring through technical reports and chairing meetings of degree-laden geeks. Instead he's been thrust into an unlikely and prominent role smack dab in the middle of three crises that will mark history -- North Korea, Iraq and Iran. And at every turn, he's refused to back down when people on every side of the issue exerted heavy pressure to try to instrumentalize him and his agency.
The non-proliferation system might be in its death throes. But there's something noble about the way ElBaradei's gone about defending its integrity.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Make That Very Not Warm To The Idea
A quick followup to yesterday's post regarding the possible impact of Turkish economic sanctions on Iraqi Kurdistan. According to Today's Zaman, the Turkish Security Council has already narrowed down an eventual embargo to the energy and food sectors. There's also this passage, regarding the possible closing of the Habur border crossing and the diversion of Turkish commercial traffic to the Nusaybin border crossing with Syria:
Turkey is aware of the fact that the US is currently sending 70 percent of the logistic needs of its troops in Iraq through the Habur border crossing and will not be warm to the idea of accessing Iraq via Syria, particularly considering the current state of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Full closure of Habur would render the US unable to provide logistical supplies to its troops in Iraq. For this reason, such an action may spark a crisis between Turkey and the US. Accordingly, Turkey is not planning to fully close down the crossing and is trying to decide on which export items will be sanctioned. Turkey will not block passage of medicine and medical products and may opt for allowing the provision of logistical supplies to US troops in Iraq.
Make no mistake about it, the Turkish-PKK crisis is piping hot and pesky. But there's a lot of arm-twisting and deal-making left to be done before it goes ballistic.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Relative To What?
I keep seeing quotes like this one from a NY Times article describing how Turkey rejected an Iraqi delegation's proposals at their latest round of meetings designed to head off a Turkish incursion:
The Turkish Parliament has approved the use of troops to follow the fighters into Iraq if necessary, and the United States and Iraq have been trying at all costs to avert a conflict in the region, which is one of the few relatively peaceful areas of Iraq.
Trouble is, if you're Turkey, there's already a conflict in the region, and the area is pretty violent relative to other parts of Turkey.
As for the negotiations, it's pretty obvious why Turkey rejected the Iraqi proposal to position American troops along the border out of hand. An American presence probably wouldn't be able to prevent the PKK from infiltrating the border, and the last thing Turkey wants is to run into a bunch of American units -- who are currently positioned out of harm's way -- if they eventually do launch an attack.
Friday, October 26, 2007
South Of The Border
The Turkish military is massing along the Iraqi border and reports of limited cross-border operations are already trickling out. But I'm still doubtful the Turks will mount a large scale military incursion. Why? Because given the choice, they'd much rather have the Kurds deal with the PKK than do it themselves. And while the threat of military action has certainly gotten everyone's attention, economic sanctions -- which Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at this week -- could prove to be much more effective to making that happen:
Many analysts feel that such an embargo would cause serious problems for Iraq’s relatively stable north, which is highly dependent on Turkish investment as the driving force of its economy. From food to energy, all vital supplies are obtained from Turkey, and Turkish contractors are restructuring the north by constructing roads, hospitals, residential buildings, apartments and infrastructure. Turkey’s exports to Iraq have surpassed $3 billion, and the Habur border gate on the trade route between Iraq and Turkey has become the lifeline of the region’s trade, despite the decrease in the number of trucks passing through the gate to 700 from 3,000 after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Analysts opine that closing Habur would alone cause great losses in profits to the Barzani government in northern Iraq, which earns a healthy revenue from traffic through the gate.
To give an idea of the kind of pressure Ankara can exert, simply closing the Habur border crossing for a week in September cost the Kurdish region $1 million per day in economic losses (figures on p. 20 here). The kinds of sanctions being floated now -- recalling Turkish nationals, blockading electricity sales -- would dwarf those figures. And while economic sanctions would take their toll on the Turkish companies doing business in northern Iraq as well, the same would be true of a miltary incursion.
Needless to say, Turkey's aggressive military posturing has helped them make the PKK a priority south of the border. But I'd be surprised to see them resort to a military operation before giving economic pressure a chance to achieve results.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
The Price Is Right
So, how do you smooth things over when you've gone and ruffled a good friend's feathers? Well, if you're Tom Lantos and the friend in question is Turkey, you sponsor a bill to give them three decommissioned guided missile frigates worth a total of $375 million free of charge, as well as a fourth one at a $100 million dollar discount. That's right, $500 million worth of naval hardware for the bargain price of $28 million.
It's not the first time we've done it, and part of the reasoning behind the gift is that it encourages Turkey to order the American-made attack helicopters that supplement the frigates. But still, doesn't something about the timing just give you the feeling we really don't want Turkey going into northern Iraq?
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Someone's Bombing, Lord?
I know I've been posting a lot on Turkey and the PKK the past few weeks. But despite my best intentions to stay away from this story, I'm by nature drawn to hotspots. And besides, how could I pass on this?
According to an official familiar with the conversation, Mr Bush assured the Turkish President that the US was seriously looking into options beyond diplomacy to stop the attacks coming from Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.
"It's not 'Kumbaya' time any more - just talking about trilateral talks is not going to be enough," the official said.
"Something has to be done."
While the use of US soldiers on the ground to root out the PKK would be the last resort, the US would be willing to launch air strikes on PKK targets, the official said, and has discussed the use of cruise missiles.
It's becoming intuitively clear that the US is going to have to actually do something and get its hands dirty in order to keep this simmering crisis from boiling over. I'd assumed it would be some sort of symbolic strike. But cruise missiles and bombing raids would probably do the trick, too. On the Turkish side of the border, anyway. I don't think it will play too well in Irbil.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
According to Gareth Porter, the PKK attack on a Turkish base over the weekend was part of a calculated and clever plan to force Turkey to the negotiating table. Coming just days after the Turkish parliament approved a military intervention, the raid as well as the apparently pre-meditated decision to take prisoners were designed to push Turkey to the brink of an incursion in order to mobilize a subsequent diplomatic backlash against the use of force.
If it's true, it would seem to have worked for the time being. I'm not sure just what concessions the PKK can realistically hope to extract, whether directly or through intermediaries. But I've become increasingly convinced that Turkey will make quite a bit of noise about this -- including some border shelling -- before eventually hammering out some sort of cooperative agreement with the Iraqi central government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the US. But the threat of an attack can't be sustained for very long without some sort of results, otherwise it loses its credibility. That, plus the fact that winter conditions are quickly setting in on the border, make time of the essence.
Monday, October 22, 2007
On The Down Low
I mentioned earlier, in relation to the recent PKK attack on Turkish forces that left twelve Turkish soldiers dead and eight missing, that it's the captured soldiers that are more likely to have an inflammatory impact on that situation. So I wasn't at all surprised to note that in the English-language Turkish press, as well as in the Turkish military press briefings, the emphasis has been on the casualties. The only mention I found of the missing soldiers was this paragraph from Today's Zaman:
An intelligence source speaking to Today’s Zaman on condition of anonymity said 10 to 12 soldiers were revealed to have been missing in a headcount after the attack. The source added it was not clear whether they ran away in panic or had been kidnapped.
Even after this deadly attack, I still get the impression that Turkey is ready and willing to exhaust all the possible diplomatic avenues to avoid engaging in a cross-border operation, mainly because it's in no one's interests, least of all their own, to send Turkish forces into northern Iraq. My observation that the captured soldiers turning up in Kurdish hands would increase the odds of such an operation (a reflection that Andrew Sullivan described as "obvious" -- ouch!) was mainly in reference to previous posts to this effect.
I also mentioned that America urgently needs to make this an American issue, even at the risk of getting our hands dirty and stepping on some (Kurdish) toes. It might very well be that no one can actually root out the PKK from their mountain bases in northern Iraq -- not the Kurds, not the Turks, and not us. But if we don't offer some concrete military assistance to at least give the appearance that we're trying to do that, it's hard to imagine the Turks' sitting on their hands for much longer.
Update: Click "Publish", find story. The Turkish military has just confirmed that the 8 soldiers are missing. It also seems that a PKK news outlet has published their names. Better keep those raincoats handy.
Monday, October 22, 2007
What's Good For The Goose
The point Matthew Yglesias is making here takes on added significance in light of recent suggestions that the pretext for an eventual attack on Iran might end up being a fabricated or provoked "hot incident" involving US and Iranian forces on the Iraq-Iran border. Having expressed his hope for a diplomatic resolution to the PKK problem, Yglesias drops this nugget:
That said, I do wonder what the apostles of "toughness" and willpower on the right will say about this. Don't they think that the Turks must cross the border in force and show the Kurds what's what? Won't weakness only invite further aggression?
Not according to Condoleeza Rice, who told Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan that "we do not believe unilateral cross-border operations are the best way to address this issue."
There are obvious differences between the PKK, which is not an official organ of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards (although by some accounts the latter do operate with a certain autonomy vis a vis the Iranian government). Even so, it will be useful to recall our response to Turkey's anger and frustration should such an event take place.
Monday, October 22, 2007
Raw Sewage Alert
If the border between Turkey and Iraq can best be described as a heap of explosives soaked with kerosene, the kind of attack that just took place there might turn out to be the spark that sets it all off. Dead soldiers are hard enough to manage in terms of public opinion, especially twelve of them at once. Captured soldiers, though, tend to push things over the brink and provoke reprisals. If the eight missing Turkish troops turn up in Kurdish hands -- or worse yet, mistreated in Kurdish hands -- the odds of a Turkish incursion (and the urgency of finding an American response to the PKK's campaign of provocation) will rise dramatically.
Friday, October 19, 2007
In the mad rush among American and Iraqi leaders to placate Turkey in the aftermath of its parliamentary approval for an incursion into Iraq, the one party who had yet to be heard from was Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish Regional Government and something of a hothead and straight shooter. You'll recall Barzani's the guy who last April threatened to "interfere" in Turkish cities if Turkey interfered in the Kirkuk referendum.
Well, Barzani broke his silence today. And as we used to say in Brooklyn, dem's fightin' words:
"We frankly say to all parties that if the region or the Kurdistan experiment come under attack under any pretext, we will completely be ready to defend our democratic experiment, our people's dignity and the sanctity of our homeland," Kurdish regional President Massoud al-Barzani said in a statement...
Iraq's Kurdistan is not "responsible for the war between the Turkish government and the PKK," al-Barzani said, underlining that the Kurdish regional government "did not support violence and bloodletting and we are not willing to be dragged into this war."
Barzani isn't alone in discouraging a Turkish incursion. He's just the only one who didn't bother phrasing it politely.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Horn + Horn = Dilemma
Gareth Jenkins is the man to read when it comes to Turkey and the PKK. This article over at The Jamestown Foundation is no exception. Why would a Turkish incursion today be less successful than the already costly incursions of the 1990's? Because ten years ago the Peshmergas fought alongside the Turks, cutting off the PKK's lines of retreat in the face of the Turkish advance, whereas today they're mobilizing to fight alongside the PKK. What will a Turkish incursion look like if the army does eventually get the order to roll out? Ground attacks on the PKK forward bases along the Turkish border, air strikes followed by airborne special forces infiltrations on the main bases in Iraq's Qandril Mountains. How likely is a Turkish incursion? Hard to tell, but Jenkins suggests that a lot depends on the US giving a clear signal of just how they would respond. Turkey is convinced American forces will do nothing; the Kurds are convinced they'll intervene after the first engagement between Peshmerga and Turkish ground troops. They can't both be right.
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
The Squeaky Wheel
Turkey's sabre-rattling campaign about a cross-border incursion into Iraq has already achieved one of its objectives. Namely, a sense of urgency among the Iraqi leadership. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called his Turkish counterpart today to reaffirm his commitment to eradicating the PKK presence in Iraq and to ask for "another chance". Meanwhile, Iraqi Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi arrived in Ankara yesterday for what Today's Zaman called a "hastily arranged visit".
Significantly, though, comments made by Jalal Talabani, Iraq's (Kurdish) President, were somewhat more tepid:
"We consider the activities of the PKK against the interests of the Kurdish people and against the interests of Turkey. We have asked the PKK to stop fighting and end military activity," Talabani said during a visit to Paris.
Of course, getting the PKK to end their military activity will have to go through the Kurds, and will probably require more than just asking them politely (although the PKK did declare a unilateral ceasefire in the past). But in the meantime, taking the Turks seriously is a start.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Based on everything I've read in the (anglophone) Turkish press, I think the chances of a full-scale Turkish military operation in Iraqi Kurdistan are actually pretty slim. Yes, the authorization for an incursion has been put before the Turkish Parliament, and yes it will almost certainly be approved. This gives Prime Minister Erdogan a year's worth of serious leverage to really get people's attention in Washington, Baghdad and Irbil. Think of it as the Turkish equivalent of the Iraq War Authorization Act, only given to a head of state who has demonstrated an appreciation for the limits of military force.
Aside from an occasional loud boom for Turkish domestic consumption, if there is any military operation it will probably come in the form of an under the radar infiltration of special forces, augmenting the hot pursuit incursions and artillery shelling of PKK positions that's been taking place -- and largely ignored by everyone involved -- for months now.
The reality is that a Turkish invasion risks turning an irritating situation into a regional crisis that will almost certainly degrade Turkey's strategic position, with little hope of actually solving the PKK problem. On the other hand, a low-level special forces operation allows everyone to walk away with a moral victory: Turkey by claiming they're addressing the problem, the US by claiming they've avoided the worst, and the Kurds by claiming that nothing's happening.
Monday, October 15, 2007
The gathering crisis along the Turkish border with Iraqi Kurdistan is illustrative of the nature of asymmetric warfare. As The New Anatolian puts it:
The PKK is pushing hard to further provoke the Turkish military into a full scale cross border operation deep into northern Iraq thus severely hurting Turkey’s ties with the European Union as well as Washington.
A PKK attack killing 13 Turkish soldiers last week created furor in Ankara forcing the government to bow to public pressures to order the military to prepare for a cross border operation into Iraq...
But the PKK has taken a defiant position saying it will intensify its terrorist campaign against Turkey.
If this sounds familiar, it's because it is. This is exactly the same strategy Osama Bin Laden pursued with the United States, minus the religious fanaticism and cult of suicide martyrdom. What's striking is how successful it remains. As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged last week, Turkey has already tried and failed to solve the PKK problem militarily. Yet here they are rattling their sabres once again, despite the fact that an incursion will severely damage Turkish interests.
Make no mistake, a Turkish military response will jeopardize America's delicate balancing act in Iraq by destabilizing the one area of that country that has known relative calm. It will throw the entire region into high alert. But it will also hurt Turkey's relations with its two most critical allies. All because of the common wisdom that sometimes you just have to hit back, even if the person you're hitting the hardest happens to be yourself.
Friday, October 12, 2007
Walking Back The Turkey Crisis
Despite the gathering Perfect Storm of alarmist headlines, Turkey's government is reacting to both recent PKK attacks and the Armenian genocide resolution with what I'd call measured outrage. The Parliamentary vote authorizing cross-border assaults into Iraqi Kurdistan won't take place before next week at the earliest. And even if an incursion is authorized, that doesn't make one inevitable.
By all indications, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's main reason for seeking the authorization vote, besides assuaging domestic public opinion, is to use it as leverage at a regional meeting on Iraq and a bi-lateral meeting with President Bush both scheduled for next month:
Erdogan said the problems stemming from the PKK presence in Iraq would be discussed when a meeting of Iraq's neighbors and key international actors convenes in Istanbul early next month and when he visits the United States for talks with President George W. Bush, again next month. "Let's make sure we have the authorization at hand so that we can decide to take a step whenever it is necessary," Erdogan said in the interview, aired on CNN Türk.
He also appeared less than sanguine about an incursion's chances of success:
"So far, there have been 24 such operations. When you look back at its benefits, we see they have not been particularly effective. We have to see this fact… If we don't analyze it well, we will lose in the end," he stated.
Meanwhile, Erdogan downplayed reports that the Turkish Ambassador to the US has been recalled:
"I do not have any such information. Possibly, the Foreign Ministry called in the ambassador for consultations, but no one has recalled him," Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
So it looks like the fan blades ought to stay clean for at least the weekend.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Finding The Words
I'm not really sure what to say about this. It's certainly true that the Congressional resolution calling the Turkish massacre of Armenians a genocide will most likely damage our relations with Turkey, and thereby do harm to our interests in the Middle East. It's also true, although this point isn't made, that there's no urgent reason to pass this kind of resolution right now, and it carries with it no binding consequences. So I could almost understand the White House's discomfort at seeing this thing go to a vote at all.
But it's creepy to hear the State Department express its regret over the resolution now that it has passed, while quite clearly taking pains to avoid referring to what it actually addresses. As if the only way to get the statement out is to avoid its actual meaning: That this administration, ordinarily so devoted to moral absolutism, is willing to ignore a historical crime against humanity for the sake of political expediency.
You can bet the Sudanese government is sleeping a little bit more peacefully tonight.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Here's a pretty solid rundown of Turkey's options in response to PKK attacks. In a nutshell, the most effective leverage Turkey has over the Iraqi Kurds is economic, including electricity exports and crucial border crossings. The only military option with any hope of success would involve a closely coordinated effort between Turkey and Iran, and if possible the Iraqi Kurds.
Turkey is already conducting hot pursuit incursions into Iraqi territory with the tacit approval of the Iraqi Kurds, and the two recently signed a cooperation agreement to deal with the PKK problem. So there might be some more water left in that well. If not, don't be surprised to see this wedge issue drive Turkey into a tactical alliance with Iran.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Gareth Jenkins over at the Jamestown Foundation has a bit more on how the PKK operates:
Since its resumption of violence in June 2004 following a five year cease-fire, the PKK has conducted a two-front strategy: a rural insurgency in eastern Turkey and a bombing campaign in the western part of the country. The latter has focused primarily on economic targets, particularly Turkey's lucrative tourism industry.
The rural insurgency picks up every year during the spring, when the mountain passes between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey thaw out. It's still not clear whether a recent string of explosions in the West represents a surge in the group's terrorist activities. Both tactics put enormous pressure on the Turkish government to respond, even though cross-border incursions in the past have had little impact. At the same time, neither the terrorist attacks nor the insurgency represent an existential threat to Turkey.
Neither side can accomplish what it wants through armed conflict, and neither side is willing to accomodate the other at the negotiating table. Which means we'll be reading about this one for some time to come.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Sorrows And Tears
By now you've probably seen that things are heating up again on the Turkish border with Iraqi Kurdistan. Fifteen Turkish soldiers were just killed by PKK militants, and the Turkish cabinet just gave the green light for "legal, economic and political preparations... including if necessary a cross-border operation" to end the PKK's presence in Iraq.
One of the problems with picking up a story mid-stream -- and Turkey has been battling PKK militants for 23 years -- is that it's easy to fall prey to the dominant narrative. And a lot of this sabre-rattling has always seemed to be for Turkish domestic consumption.So I thought I'd cite this passage written by Ilnur Cevik, a Turkish opinion columnist writing in The New Anatolian:
We call these people terrorists and we are frowned upon if we do not do so. However, it is time we all realized the facts and lived with realities instead of nationalist cliches.
What the PKK does in our cities is an act of terrorism. On Monday a bomb went off in Istanbul injuring five people. Recently two bombs went off in Izmir killing one student and injuring several people. This is an act of terrorism and it is most probably performed by the PKK terrorist organization militants.
However, what we see in eastern and southeastern Turkey is not terrorism. It is clearly some form of warfare which should be taken seriously and which should not be regarded as an act of terrorism.
If the PKK can roam around and survive for all these months in these areas which are supposed to be high security zones with such ease then they are getting help from some local people.
Land Forces Commander General Ilker Basbug has already admitted that the authorities have failed in preventing PKK recruiting from the local people... Why is this so?
It is time to look for solutions beyond the current military means. We have to reduce the PKK into a terrorist organization that has no local support.
To do this we first have to understand the needs and wishes of the people of southeastern Turkey. The area needs bread. People are feeling the pressures of poverty. There are no jobs and no means to sustain a family...
The reason why PKK can enlist people is not really because of Kurdish nationalist sentiments. The PKK recruits poor and hungry youths who do not see any future for themselves. There are also those who are fed up being pushed around by the authorities because everyone in the region is regarded a PKK sympathizer...
This is the puzzle our leaders have to solve. Or else will (sic) face more sorrows and tears.
Of course, one of the problems with citing foreign opinion writers you've just read for the first time is that you might be sending the Turkish equivalent of a Friedman Unit out through the tubes. But what the hell. It adds a little perspective.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Lowering The Heat
The announcement of an agreement between Turkey and Iraq allowing Turkey to conduct cross-border "hot pursuit" raids against the PKK with Iraqi approval is good news. It remains to be seen how effective the agreement is in operation, as well as how willing the Iraqi Kurds are to go along with the deal. But any development that reduces tensions in that part of Iraq is welcome.
I'm curious to know just how involved the US was in brokering this deal. It would be a reflection of how much influence we really have on either of these governments.
Monday, September 24, 2007
[This reader's comment on a previous post about Turkey is informative enough that I thought I'd pop it onto the front page.]
Yes I agree that Turkey's route is, and has always been, an important stick where Islam and democracy's compatibility can be measured.
I am a secular Turk. The western, and eastern for that matter, media portrays us seculars as some kind of rich spoiled "elites", who have the army at our disposal to pound on the poor, religious and innocent masses at anytime. We are somehow related to autocrats of Egypt, Algeria and Syria. This is not only ridiculously simplified, it is also not true.
Instead of my words, I'll let the numbers do the talking. These following numbers are taken from a May 1999 survey (please consider the fact that that year was considered to be the height of Islamic fundemantalism in Turkey):
Those who define themselves as Muslim: 97%
I pray 5 times a day: 46% [ in '07 : 25%]
I never pray: 53%
Even if someone drinks, if they have faith they are Muslim: 67%
Even if someone doesn't pray, if they have faith they are Muslim: 87%
Even if someone doesn't fast, if they have faith they are Muslim: 82%
If a woman has faith, but doesn't cover her hair, she is still a Muslim: 85%
As you can see Turkey's people always had a very relaxed point of view when it came to religion.
I, being a secular, probably would have been considered a liberal in the US, however that title in Turkey is given to the current administration, which came to being from a religious background.
But the most important number comes from a PEW report. Only 9% of Turks had a favorable point of view regarding the US. This is astonishing as it is even lower than the 11% of Palestinians who were favorable. In fact the favorable numbers have all fallen greatly for Russia, European Union, Iran, Israel etc. We are becoming isolated and very very confused with our neo-liberal religous, hardline seculars, elites and masses, the army, the Kurds, the Armenians want to stick another one here and there, European Union will never takes us, we shouldn't even be there etc etc.
We are in a locked battle with ourselves and somehow, without bloodshed or assassinations or coups we have managed to get through it.
So yes I agree that what happens in Turkey is very important to the whole region, but we are not slipping into theocracy. Our people wouldn't allow it.
Monday, September 24, 2007
Canary In The Mine
This post isn't really inspired by any single major news item as much as by a whole slew of smaller ones. The thought was triggered by a blurb about Turkey opening its yearly fall offensive against the PKK a month earlier than normal this year, gathered steam with the news that Blackwater (or two of its employees) are the subject of an FBI investigation for illegally smuggling weapons to the PKK in Iraq, and culminated in an article about the US urging Turkey to find alternatives sources of natural gas instead of developing Iranian reserves as planned.
And the thought is that somehow, in pursuing a generation-defining war against Islamic extremism, we've managed to push the one democratic, secular, dependable Islamic ally we have in the region into the arms of our worst enemies.
Iran is a sexy story right now, and rightfully so. But when the dust of history settles on the Iraq War, I'm not sure that the unleashing of Iran will rate as its most significant adverse outcome. That honor might very well go to the deterioration of the American-Turkish strategic alliance. Because unlike Iraq or Iran, which we never really stood a chance of winning over, Turkey was already on our side. And we're in the process of losing it, at the very moment when religious Muslims have begun to dominate the Turkish political scene.
For the time being, the Turkish military and cultural elites serve as guarantors of secularism. But if Turkey ever does wind up sliding into theocracy, it will be a major strategic setback for American regional interests. And it will be in many ways traceable to bi-lateral tensions caused by our intervention in Iraq.
Iran is important. But the future of Turkey, it seems to me, will determine the future of the region.
Monday, June 18, 2007
With all the recent headlines about Turkey and the PKK, this is the first time I've seen an actual interview with a PKK leader. Michael Howard of The Guardian spoke to Cemil Bayik, one of the PKK's two chiefs, who had this to say about his group:
Mr Bayik said the PKK, which began life 30 years ago advocating a pan-Kurdish Marxist-Leninist state, was no longer a separatist movement. "We are not looking for independence, we are not even looking for federalism like the Iraqi Kurds have. The solution lies in granting the Kurds of Turkey language and cultural rights and freedom of speech."
He also denied that the group targeted civilians, and declared that they would welcome dialogue to resolve their conflict with Turkey.
According to most accounts I've seen, Turkey's record on the Kurds is pretty bad, and although Ankara has undertaken some reforms (mainly due to EU pressure), they've been pretty half-hearted. On the other hand, the US and EU have both listed the PKK as a terrorist group.
So there you have it. Looks like the final betting line on this one is "Pick 'em."
By the way, talk about a byline: Michael Howard in the Qandil Mountains. Indeed.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Sleight Of Hand
Any magician worth his salt knows the importance of misdirection to a successful trick. If you don't want people to pay attention to what's going on over here, give them something to think about over there. Well, with pressure growing from the army and public opinion to mount a cross-border incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan gave every indication today that he's an apprentice magician:
Erdogan said on Tuesday that there has been no resolution with the PKK domestically and, therefore, talk of an Iraq invasion was a long way off.
"Has the fight with the 5,000 terrorists finished domestically that we should now be talking about Iraq?" he said.
For its part, the PKK has reportedly offered a ceasefire if Turkey calls off military operations on the border. I wouldn't hold my breath on that one though.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
The Squeaky Wheel
If the US eventually does get around to dealing with the PKK problem, either directly or by proxy through the Kurds, this article on Turkish relations with Iran might explain why. It might explain the EU's current charm offensive towards Ankara as well.
Monday, June 11, 2007
Two Out Of Three
And then, every so often, public opinion gets ahead of geopolitical gamesmanship. Like when a funeral for three Turkish soldiers killed in a PKK cross-border attack turns into a 10,000-person strong anti-government rally. The government's inability to stop the PKK attacks, which have killed at least two dozen Turkish soldiers since May 24, led mourners in three Turkish cities to call for its resignation. With the Turkish military already advocating a major incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan, the only thing that seems to be standing in the way is Prime Minister Erdogan's insistence that Parliament be consulted.
Monday, June 11, 2007
Just The Three Of Us
According to this article in The New Anatolian, Turkey has begun coordinating its military response to PKK attacks, including shelling of PKK positions inside Iraqi territory, with Iran. That might explain the end of the "See no evil, hear no evil" approach on the part of the Iraqi government, which presented a diplomatic letter of protest to the Turkish ambassador in response to this weekend's artillary barrage, which some military analysts say could only have been carried out from Iranian, and not Turkish, positions. Counter-intuitively, the protest might actually be a good sign, a way for the US and Iraq to signal to Turkey that they're willing to play hardball against the PKK now, so long as the Iranians aren't involved.
Sunday, June 10, 2007
Moqtada And The Kurds
Since he came out of hiding in the end of May, Moqtada al-Sadr has tried to re-position himself as a leader of national unification. Until this weekend, that consisted mainly of reaching out to the Sunni insurgency in an effort to undermine the governing coalition of Nouri al-Maliki. But today al-Sadr showed both his political skill and opportunism by taking advantage of the conflict between Turkey and the PKK to broaden his nationalist appeal.
Here's how he condemned the Turkish bombardment of Iraqi Kurdistan, according to an AP dispatch:
We will not stay silent in the face of these transgressions because our faith and our nation call upon us to defend Iraq and every inch of its territory, which we consider to be holy.
Meanwhile, Le Monde quoted him as declaring, "The Kurdish people are part of Iraq, and it is our duty to defend them." (Translated from the French.)
It's a clever move, not only because it reinforces his new image of a leader who transcends the sectarian divide. It also "Iraqifies" the problem at a time when the US was trying to localize it to the Kurdish north. What's more, the added attention can only exacerbate what is a thorny issue for everyone involved, but especially for the US. Should the crisis escalate, it will ultimately force our hand: either we choose sides between the Turkish and the Kurds, or else we wade into the middle of another shooting war in Iraq.
Either way it adds problems to America's Iraqi plate, which only strengthens Moqtada's hand.
Saturday, June 9, 2007
The Quiet Tip
There were a number of reasons I'd come to believe that nothing really dramatic would happen on Turkey's border with Iraq. Not least of which is that any attack against the PKK bases -- whether by the Kurds, the Americans or the Turks -- is likely to do more harm than good.
But also because it seemed like the parties involved had found a way for everyone to save face while not really resolving the problem: Turkey would get to to respond to PKK attacks with "hot pursuit" cross-border operations and artillery strikes, and the US and the Kurds would look the other way and pretend nothing's happening.
Only trouble is, the Iraqi government just presented Turkey with a formal protest over today's early-morning artillery barrage on PKK positions in Iraq. So much for looking the other way.
There are still plenty of reasons for Turkey to forego a full-scale invasion. But they'll lose their dissuasive power if the Kurds try to tie their hands, while refusing to clean out the PKK themselves.
Thursday, June 7, 2007
Heading For The Border
The trend in the press as the day went on was to downplay early reports of a sizable Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan. By the evening, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had denied the rumors, and stated that any pre-meditated invasion would need to be presented to and approved by the Turkish parliament. At the same time, however, the Turkish military declared what it called "security zones" in three southeastern Turkish provinces. What exactly that means was not clear.
What is clear is that the Turkish military is crossing into Iraqi territory on a regular basis. A press officer at the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me that while she couldn't provide any details on these operations, they were no secret. She stated that they were limited to "hot pursuit", where Turkish units engaged by PKK guerillas in Turkish territory subsequently followed them when they retreated back into Iraqi territory.
The press officer stated that this was in accordance with international law, under the legal doctrine of "hot pursuit". The doctrine itself originates from the Law of the Seas, and pertains to a state's right to pursue foreign vessels into international waters for violating laws and regulations in its territorial waters. Its application to ground operations, on the other hand, is far from a settled matter. Some people have used it to argue for American military forces following Iraqi insurgents into Syria, for example, but the argument is not universally accepted.
I doubt we'll hear much about it in Turkey's case, though. For political reasons, the Kurdish Regional Government might not be able to root out the PKK itself. Same goes for the US. But neither do they want to alienate Turkey, with whom they both have strong ties. So it looks like they've decided that the best way to handle this prickly situation is to let the Turks take care of the PKK and pretend as if nothing is happening.