“We have no friends other than the mountains.” – Kurdish proverb
With more than 100,000 troops and all those F-16s, tanks and helicopter gunships massed on the Turkish-Iraqi border, the new George W Bush greater Middle East war – that is, the Turkish invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan – is ready to roll.
This “war on terror” blockbuster spin-off may screen against the wishes of Hollywood, sorry, Washington market gurus; anyway the fireworks are unlikely to start before the crucial Washington face-to-face on November 5 between Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan.
To say this is all part of a “structural crisis” between Turkey and the US would be the understatement of the century. Turkey is actually deciding nothing less than its real geopolitical position in a mesmerizing balancing act involving Iran, Israel, the Arab world, Europe, Russia and the US.
Washington has been endlessly telegraphed about Ankara’s intentions. Erdogan has already told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice there’s only one way to prevent a Turkish invasion: US special forces must grab the 150 or so top Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leaders holed up in the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan and deliver them on a silver platter to Ankara.
The US commander in Iraqi Kurdistan, Major General Benjamin Mixon, has already volunteered his answer to this request: the US will do “absolutely nothing” about it. Thus the rumors about the arsenal of alternative US tactics – like “precision” cruise missile bombing of PKK camps in the mountains, of course duly authorized by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad.
Behind the usual rhetorical fog of Turkey “continuing to support the Iraqi people,” as far as Ankara is concerned the outcome is predetermined: “We will launch an operation when it will be necessary, without asking for anybody’s opinion,” Erdogan said on Saturday.
General Yasar Buvukanit told NTV in Turkey that the military is essentially just waiting for Erdogan’s green light. For all practical purposes, the Turkish military has already invaded Iraqi Kurdistan by a range of 12 kilometers, and Turkish jets have already unleashed air strikes.
This time Iraqi Kurds definitely will not betray their cousins, the Turkish Kurds – although they did so, for instance, in 1992, when they collaborated with the Turkish military in an anti-PKK joint offensive. To expect that the 100,000 well-trained Kurdish peshmerga (the KRG’s military) will blockade the PKK’s camps high in the mountains is pure wishful thinking.
What Turkey can do is to bleed Iraqi Kurdistan – via an economic embargo, already approved by Turkey’s National Security Council. Iraqi Kurdistan depends on Turkey for 90% of its imports (20% for Iraq as a whole). Turkey can simply close Habur – its sole border crossing point with Iraq – and reroute all cargo to Syria. Iraqi Kurds will be deprived of everything from foodstuffs to fridges and tires.
Electricity in Iraqi Kurdistan is also provided by Turkey. The Turks are virtually building everything – from Irbil airport to Sulaymaniah University. But Turkish businesses would also lose: there are more than 1,000 companies and 15,000 Turkish workers in Iraqi Kurdistan. “Turkish” in this case means Turkish Kurds from southeast Anatolia. In case of an embargo, more than 200,000 Turkish Kurds would be severely affected.
The two faces of ‘terror’
This mini-war transcends the PKK. Ankara’s ultimate nightmare is an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, a virtual certainty after the incorporation of oil-rich Kirkuk through a referendum which should be held next month – but which will be inexorably postponed. Ankara regards this development as an inevitable – for them horrifying – consequence of the Bush administration’s “vision” of a greater Middle East. The “vision” in fact presupposes the partition of Iraq.
Washington never paid attention to the PKK factor. The Turks did. This does not mean they know how to deal with it. The PKK is very popular among Turkish Kurds because it embodies resistance against non-stop Turkish military repression of rural Kurds. But its hardcore tactics have cost it local support in the past few years, so the PKK had to relocate its bases from southern Anatolia to northern Iraq.
For Turkey, this was as much a military as a political victory. But starting in 2004, the PKK was back on overdrive. Now Turkey’s generals have had enough and are itching to invade. They simply cannot swallow a (soft) Islamist president, Abdullah Gul; instead of plotting a coup, an invasion is the ideal platform for them to let off steam.
Politically, though, it will be a disaster. Kurdish nationalism, on both sides of the border, is bound to reach fever pitch. And the PKK knows a Turkish invasion will torpedo Ankara’s relations with both the US and especially the European Union (Turkey desperately wants to enter the EU). Not to mention the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the KRG and Erdogan’s Turkish Kurd voters.
Then there’s the Iranian front. According to the independent Ankara Anatolia news agency, Gul and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad have had a most interesting phone conversation. Seemingly in sync, they agreed both their countries are victims of terrorism. This is essentially correct: as the PKK attacks Turkey, its Iranian arm, the PJAK (Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) attacks Iran.
What both presidents left implied is even meatier: as Washington manipulates the PJAK for attacks on Iran, it has left the PKK to its own devices. The Turks – faithful North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies of the US – know very well how Washington plays a double game, with intelligence covert operations funding and arming the PJAK. The PKK has made it to the extensive US list of terrorist groups; the PJAK has not.
But the PKK and PJAK have the same leaders, have the same logistics base, and both pledge allegiance to iconic Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, captured with inside information by Israeli intelligence in 1999 and jailed for perpetuity in Turkey. For the Turks, Ocalan is similar to what Osama bin Laden is for the US.
As Middle East expert Juan Cole succinctly put it, “Bush’s special greatness is that his coddling of Kurdish separatism and terrorism has brought together the Sunni Turks and the Shi’ite Iranians, traditional enemies.”
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad – no friend of Kurdish nationalism himself – has recently been to Ankara. Turkey and Iran always discuss and conduct joint operations against both the PKK and PJAK. Washington wanted Ankara to isolate both Damascus and Tehran. It did not, and it will not, happen.
Worse, Turkish intelligence knows all about Israel training the peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan. This particular blowback would be comic if it were not tragic: instead of US/Israeli-trained Kurds plunging Iran into chaos, now we have irate Turks itching to invade US-protected Iraqi Kurdistan (or, as a matter of fact, to invade US-occupied Iraq).
Ask Barzani and Talabani
The PJAK’s leader, Rahman Haj-Ahmadi, who lives in exile in Germany, has already been to the US this past summer (he got a visa because the PJAK is not considered a terrorist group). His avowed agenda is for Kurds to be part of a “secular, democratic” regime in Iran. Washington neo-conservatives sit up every time someone says “regime change in Iran.” But what they don’t seem to accept is that Ahmadi’s real agenda, similar to that of the overwhelming majority of Kurds, is the establishment of a greater Kurdistan.
An Iraqi Kurdistan embassy will soon open in Ankara – and will have to try its best to counter widespread, visceral anti-Kurdish sentiment in Turkey. Ankara has identified that the only way to subdue dreams of a greater Kurdistan is to offer a better life for Kurds in southeast Anatolia – or at least the illusion of better opportunities. This is above all connected to the greater water wars in the Middle East. The Turkish military wants to build the Ilisu dam on the Tigris River. With this, not only could they control the destiny of Iraqi Kurdistan, but they could also erase dozens of Kurdish towns and villages and thus local support for the PKK.
Anti-Kurdish prejudice in Turkey – or fear of the pan-Kurdish dream – is exemplified, for instance, by the editor-in-chief of the popular Istanbul daily, Hurriyet, an avowed disciple of Bush-style “either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists” logic. For him the single culprit in this whole mess is Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KRG. Barzani does harbor a pan-Kurdish dream. The Turkish editor would rather transform the Kurdish dream into a Kurdish nightmare.
Beyond all the hysteria, he does have a point: what are the two Iraqi Kurdish historical leaders, and former fierce enemies – Jalal Talabani (today Iraq’s president) and Barzani (president of the KRG) really up to? Barzani rejects outright any possibility of a Turkish invasion. He does not even consider the PKK as terrorists; he and his peshmerga actually protect the PKK.
Talabani for his part says he understands Turkey’s pain. He offered the prospect of the PKK announcing one more unilateral ceasefire. But he also told Kurdish TV, “we will not hand over any Kurd to Turkey, not even a Kurdish cat.”
Talabani in fact does not care about Ankara; what he cares about is his American protectors. Take the words of Qubad Talabani, dad’s son in Washington, when he told United Press International in May, “Kurds want the sort of ‘strategic and institutional relationship’ that Israel and Taiwan have with the United States … We are seeking the same protection.”
Only Barzani could actually do something about the PKK; the Green Zone government in Baghdad is irrelevant and ignored by the KRG. But Ankara refuses any meaningful dialogue with the KRG; partly because of anti-Kurdish sentiment, partly out of fear of an imminent, independent Iraqi Kurdistan mini-state. Barzani, not by accident, is itching for the Kirkuk referendum to happen as soon as possible.
All about Kirkuk
The PKK is so relaxed in the middle of all this frenzy it even organized a press conference in the spectacular Qandil mountains, 10 kilometers from the Iranian border, attended by Le Monde’s Patrice Claude and The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn. Claude and Cockburn were left with the impression that the PKK – although insisting it is just defending itself against the Turkish drive to exterminate it – is indeed rooting for a Turkish invasion; that would pit Turkey against Iraqi Kurds en masse, especially Barzani’s peshmerga, and the PKK structure would suffer barely a scratch.
After all, the PKK believes nobody could dislodge its up to 3,500 warriors ensconced in dozens of mobile camps in the mountains, “not even Alexander the Great.” The Turks know it; they tried twice in 1995 and 1997, with 50,000 troops, with zero success.
As the PKK leadership reads it, it’s all about Turkey trying to smash the inevitable independence of Iraqi Kurdistan – or 5 million Iraqi Kurds about to live the dream of 12 million Turkish Kurds. The major plot is the future of Iraq, no less, with or without a Barzani-led independent Kurdistan flush with Kirkuk’s oil.
Bush was so obsessed with his “surge” in Iraq that he and the administration forgot about Kirkuk. Turkey against “evil terrorists”? Not really; looks like the preview screening of the Battle of Kirkuk.
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007).