US-Turkish tensions over the war and Iraqi Kurdistan

May/June 2003

When the Bush administration started elaborating military plans for its war on Iraq, it was apparently assumed that Turkey's support could be taken for granted.

However, this proved to be a miscalculation. On 1 March this year, the Turkish Parliament voted to deny the US permission for their troops to invade Iraq from Turkey, although it still allowed the US Air Force to use Turkish air space. Consequently, US strategists had to change their invasion plans at the last minute. The 62,000 US troops, whose original mission had been to set up a second front in Iraq by entering from the north, had to be re- embarked and sent to the Gulf via the Suez Canal.

As it turned out, due to the rapid collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, Turkey's unexpected resistance to US demands made little difference to the course of the war itself. But this resistance, limited as it may be so far, illustrates the fact that, by launching their attack on Iraq, the US has taken the risk of re-igniting a whole series of conflicts in the region, both inside and outside Iraq. And it may well provide a foretaste of far more serious problems to come.

The Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq

The main cause of disagreement between Turkey and the US concerns the future of Iraqi Kurdistan. This area of northern Iraq is part of a wider Kurdish region which covers parts of Iraq (with 5 million people), Turkey (12 million), as well as Syria and Iran. And the Kurdish people's fight for an independent Kurdistan has been brutally resisted by all four states for generations. The problem for Turkey today, is that following the first Gulf War, a large part of Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed quasi- autonomous status, thereby providing a springboard for Kurdish national aspirations.

When US troops ousted the Iraqi army from Kuwait in March 1991, the Kurdish people in the north of Iraq and the mostly Shia Arab population in the south responded to the US leaders' call to rise up in revolt. By 5th March, the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan had risen in open resistance against Saddam Hussein's troops, who left the area almost without a fight.

However, US authorities much preferred to deal with Saddam Hussein than with a new Iraqi leadership supported by rebellious masses. Hence, they cynically decided to abort their offensive against Baghdad and to allow Saddam Hussein's army to use its combat helicopters and heavy artillery to smash the insurgency. And so it did. The Shiite and Kurdish revolts ended in a bloodbath. In the north, hundreds of thousands of people fled in front of Saddam Hussein's army, heading for the border in the hope of finding refuge in Turkey.

But Turkey refused to allow them into its territory, and they found themselves trapped in the mountains of Kurdistan between the Iraqi and Turkish armies. It was then and only then, in April 1991, that the US leaders decided to set up the northern "no-fly- zone", above the 36th parallel. This prevented Baghdad's army from further intervening in Kurdistan and permitted the Kurdish militias to set up their own, weak power, under US and British protection.

So, it was reluctantly, and only after allowing the Iraqi military to smash the uprising, that the US leaders agreed to the establishment of a form of Kurdish autonomous power on a narrow strip of land running along Iraq's borders with Turkey and Iran. This territory excluded the big oil cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, whose Kurdish population had largely been driven out, first by Saddam's policy of "Arabisation" in the 1970s and 80s, and then by the repression of this latest uprising. Inside this Kurdish enclave, power on the ground was shared de facto between the two main Kurdish parties - Masud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - which were both based on militias operating outside any control from the population and reflecting, to a large extent, the divisions between the various clans of Kurdish society. Soon Barzani and Talabani entered into a fight for power in which each sought the support of Iran, Turkey, Syria and even Baghdad, against its rival.

In 1992, a Kurdish organisation from Turkey, the Partiya Karkaren Kurdistan (PKK, Kurdistan Workers' Party), tried to get a foothold in northern Iraq, as a base for its guerrilla warfare against Turkey's armed forces. The Turkish army reacted by increasing its incursions into Iraq to hunt down the guerrillas, and the Turkish government warned Barzani and Talabani that if they failed to keep the PKK under control the Turkish army would occupy the Kurdish enclave and do the job itself. Talabani and Barzani did what they were told. The Iraqi Kurdish militias attacked the Turkish Kurdish militias of the PKK, before fighting it out between themselves in 1994, to consolidate their power over their respective zones.

It was only after these battles that a certain degree of stability was finally established in the Kurdish enclave, between the KDP militias in the north west, along the Turkish border, and the PUK militias in the north east, along the border with Iran. Thanks to the open collaboration between Barzani, Talabani, the Turkish government and the CIA, the Turkish PKK lost its bases in Iraq as well as in Syria and was virtually wiped out in Turkey itself.

The fragile Kurdish power thus rested on a US-sponsored equilibrium between the Turkish, Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian governments, with the complicity of the Kurdish leaders who played off their "protectors" against each other. The situation also guaranteed the Kurdish leaders a relatively important source of income, thanks to the duties imposed on Iraq's imports and exports especially oil through the Turkish and Iranian borders. Subsequently, the West ensured the cooperation of the Kurdish leaders by giving them control over 13% of the income from Iraq's "oil for food" programme - when the remaining 87% of the Iraqi population under Saddam's control only received 54% of this income.

This was a period of relative autonomy for Iraq's Kurdistan, and it brought about a certain improvement in the economic situation and political climate at least compared to the very harsh conditions of the previous years.

Turkey's attitude to Washington's plans for Iraq

When the US strategists started making plans to attack Iraq, they could, therefore, rely on the long-standing support of the two Kurdish nationalist parties (who had no other choice, anyway) inside the Kurdish enclave - support they had already used to organise a few, unsuccessful attempts at overthrowing Saddam Hussein. But they also needed Turkey's support and they believed that Ankara's regime, one of the US strongest and most faithful allies in the area, would not fail them.

The US had many means of putting pressure on Turkey. The country's huge external debt, totalling about $150bn, had already caused a series of financial crises. Each time, Turkey had been able to avoid the kind of bankruptcy that hit countries like Argentina, for instance, but only because the International Monetary Fund had released enough funds for the Turkish state to meet its commitments. In other words, the apparent health of Turkish finances depended on US political and financial leaders - who regularly reminded Turkey of this fact.

As a result of this dependence, the Turkish leaders had never failed to support the US over the previous period. They had even gone so far as to tighten their links with Israel, to the extent of organising joint military exercises - something which was bound to be seen as a direct threat by Arab countries like Syria.

During their early contacts with the Turkish government, US envoys were assured of Turkish support in the event of an attack on Iraq. But they apparently overlooked two details. The first detail was that the assurances they had received were unreliable, since they had been made by Bülent Ecevit's government, a worn-out, discredited government which was likely to be thrown out in the following election, due in November 2002. And the second detail was that by meddling with Iraq - and especially Iraqi Kurdistan - the US were interfering with what the Turkish ruling class considered as a very sensitive area, in which it was not at all obvious that Turkey's interests would coincide with those of the US.

Such was the situation when the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP, Justice and Development Party), a so-called "moderate Islamist" party, won the November 2002 general election. The AKP's success was not so much due to a wave of "Islamist" reaction, but to the voters' disowning the previous government - a government based on a coalition between Ecevit's nationalist left-wing party and a far-right party - whose rule had been marked by a series of financial crises, on-going inflation reaching 100 per cent a year, a long string of austerity policies and repeated corruption scandals. The parties represented in the previous government were eliminated from parliament, where only two parties remained: the AKP and the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP, Republican People's Party), a social democratic party which had not been part of the previous government coalition.

After the elections, the AKP leaders were in no hurry to take a stance towards the coming war. Belonging to a new generation of leaders who had left former prime minister Erbakan's traditional Islamist party, they appeared as a new, uncorrupted group. They enjoyed a climate of hopeful expectation and did not wish to appear as determined supporters of a war that was largely unpopular in Turkey.

So they decided to play for time, haggling about the cost of Turkey's involvement in the war. Turkey's participation in the first Gulf War against Iraq had left some unhappy memories in Ankara. Turkey had suffered financial losses estimated at tens of billions of dollars due to lost trade with Iraq and these losses had been only partly compensated by US aid. Twelve years on, trade between Turkey and Iraq was still very limited, due to the UN embargo and the "oil-for-food" programme. Another new war could only mean a further collapse of this limited trade.

Using the economic consequences of the first Gulf War as an argument, Turkish leaders demanded tens of billions of dollars in compensation from the US. At the same time, some sections among the Turkish leading circles argued that it was not in the country's interests to participate in the war, even if they won such financial compensation. A US intervention in Iraq could pave the way for autonomy or even independence of Iraqi Kurdistan - which, in turn, would encourage, or even provide help to Kurdish nationalists in Turkey itself. It was even argued that there was a risk of this war leading to the creation of a Kurdish state which, with the help of the US, would control the oil resources of the Mosul and Kirkuk area - an area over which Turkey has long- standing claims. Besides, it was not in Turkey's interest to appear as a regional pillar of the US war against Iraq as this would have only resulted in increasing the hostility of Arab and Muslim opinion against Turkey, thereby undermining its chances to boost its political and economic weight in the Middle East.

Finally, the international context - in particular the apparent reluctance of some European countries over the planned war against Iraq - encouraged a fraction of the Turkish ruling circles to distance themselves from US policy and to play Europe against the US. After using US support to try to overcome Europe's reluctance to admit Turkey into the European Union, the Turkish leaders used Europe's reluctance to embark on a war in Iraq to resist US pressures to join it.

Despite all these reservations, however, the Turkish government and army leaders continued to assure the US leaders that they could rely on their support for an intervention against Iraq - until the surprise vote in the National Assembly, when the motion authorising the US army's transit through Turkish territory to attack Iraq from the north was defeated by three votes.

This vote created an unexpected situation. While the Turkish Parliament discussed the possibility of a second vote, US war ships were forced to cruise off the coast of Turkey, waiting for a decision allowing them to disembark troops, although the Turkish Chief of Staff allowed the US army to transport some of its equipment to military bases it had rented on Turkish territory.

Meanwhile, talks continued between Turkish and US emissaries over Turkey's support for the war. Although the actual details of these talks remained secret, they obviously faced difficulties. Not only did the US leaders refuse to give precise figures for their financial aid to Turkey but they also refused to commit themselves on the future of Iraqi Kurdistan. Above all, despite Turkey's desire to send troops inside Iraq and create a "buffer zone" along its border as a guarantee, Washington publicised its refusal to allow any Turkish soldiers on Iraqi soil, not even under the "humanitarian" cover which had been suggested by Turkey.

Of course, the failure of the US to concede any ground to Turkey may just have been a reflection of the Bush administration's arrogant attitude. But the US leaders did face a problem - how to appear to make promises to the Iraqi Kurds while telling the Turks that they would not support Kurdish demands! Although, at the same time, it is not impossible that the US and Turkey were playing a kind of game: while the US needed the Kurds' support for its war against Iraq, it was probably prepared, once the war was over, to let the Kurds down for the benefit of both Turkey and a future Western-backed regime in Baghdad. Such a twisted game would be nothing new for the Kurds who would be, once again, the victims of an agreement reached at their expense by powers which were supposed to be their allies.

In any case, at that point, the tension increased between the US and Turkey. When the latter only allowed the former to use its air space, US leaders lost patience. They ordered the ships, which were still anchored off the coast of Turkey, to head towards southern Iraq via the Suez Canal and the US troops which were already on Turkish territory had to re-embark.

Towards a Turkish intervention?

The US attitude was of course a form of blackmail: either the Turkish regime cooperated with the US army or tens of billions of dollars in US aid could fail to reach Ankara. The financial markets understood this perfectly and the Turkish lira rapidly fell when the Turkish parliament refused aid to the US offensive in Iraq - thereby showing that the Ankara government remained under threat of a financial crisis which could, at some point, force it to surrender to future US diktats.

Since the collapse of Saddam's regime, however, the US have embarked on what appears to be a balancing act which, although it is primarily aimed at the main political forces in Iraq, is also designed to keep the Turkish government out of the game. So, for instance, at a press conference held in Baghdad on 22nd April, Jay Garner, Bush's proconsul in Iraq, insisted adamantly that the word "federalism" had never even been mentioned in his talks with the Kurdish parties. Given that the KDP and PUK have made it perfectly clear that a federal Iraq is precisely what they expect - short of independence - from their support for the US invasion, this was a rather crude sop to the anti-federalism of the Shiite Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) but also, undoubtedly, to Ankara. However, the US does have to make some gestures towards the Kurdish parties, on whose support they still have to rely to police Iraqi Kurdistan - which is probably why, the following week, the same Jay Garner referred to Kirkuk as a "Kurdish town", which immediately triggered an angry reaction from Ankara. Of course, it remains to be seen to what extent the US leaders are worried about a possible backlash from Turkey.

However such a backlash is more than just a remote possibility. Indeed, the situation created by the war on Iraq has opened up what Ankara may consider as new opportunities for Turkey. The Turkish generals have made all the necessary arrangements to be able to take advantage of the situation if need be. Having concentrated troops near the border, they have the means to occupy as much Iraqi territory as Ankara would deem necessary for Turkey's security. Should the Kurdish nationalist militias prove too bold to Ankara's liking, the Turkish army could be ordered into Iraq to confront these militias. Finally, the Turkish generals might also be tempted to occupy the oil-producing areas around Mosul and Kirkuk, which they believe should have gone to Turkey when the Middle East was carved up into Western spheres of influence after World War I. This could be done, for instance, in the name of the Turkmen minority living in the area, with Turkey claiming to act as its protector.

Of course, ignoring US warnings against any intervention by the Turkish army inside Iraqi territory implies a risk. But it is a risk the Turkish generals might be willing to take if they were convinced that US troops were too busy dealing with the rest of Iraq to intervene against them. Or if they thought it worthwhile, after having invaded northern Iraq, they could offer to retreat in exchange for a huge share of the oil riches of the area, for example, just as in 1925 when the Turkish regime of the time gave up its claim over Iraqi Kurdistan in return for a 10% share of the royalties earned by Iraq on its oil for the next 25 years.

Such an intervention would create a situation in the north of Iraq which would not be all that different from what happened in Cyprus in 1974. At the time, the Turkish army intervened under the pretext of defending the Turkish minority - allegedly threatened by a coup organised by forces who wanted the island to join Greece. Only today, 29 years later, is the border between the two parts of the island being tentatively opened. Turkish troops are still present on the island where they protect the mafia- like government which rules over the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus - a state which is recognised only by Ankara. With such a tradition of military adventurism, the Turkish generals might be tempted to indulge in it again, given the example set by the world's biggest power. They might also be pushed in that direction by Turkey's financial and economic crisis. All the more so, because, although the AKP government has been in power for less than six months, it has already lost some of its political credit by embarking on the same kind of austerity measures as its predecessors, in an attempt to control the country's financial crisis.

Will the Turkish generals opt for another military adventure? Their decision will, of course, depend on the reactions and difficulties met by the US and Britain in their occupation of Iraq. But it will also depend on Turkey's political and financial crisis. In any case, by his intervention, Bush has given the signal for a genuine scramble for the spoils of Iraq and has made such a "war inside the war" possible. Because of their own open greediness and brutality, the Western leaders have stirred the embers that could set the area ablaze and perhaps involve, in very unpredictable ways, Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and the various Arab countries, not to mention Iran.

3 May 2003