Iraq Border Tension: Will Turkey Shoot?

Mark R. Parris
Mark R. Parris Former Brookings Expert

July 6, 2007

Turkey’s top general said again last week he would like to cross Turkey’s border with Iraq to strike terrorist camps of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Leaders of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party (which its critics label “Islamist”) have publicly suggested an incursion is possible before Turkey’s July 22 general elections. Will Turkey shoot?

Maybe. Turkey has a genuine terrorism problem. Over the last 18 months, terrorist attacks have exacted a steady and rising toll among Turkish security forces and civilians. A U.S.-Turkish-Iraqi mechanism created to squeeze the PKK in northern Iraq has produced few visible results. It is widely viewed in Turkey as a palliative designed to keep the Turkish army on its side of the border. Turkish forces along that border have been reinforced and Turkish diplomats have shared with international organizations and third countries Turkey’s case for unilateral action. It appears Ankara is on a hair trigger.

But there is a subtext in Turkey’s current debate on how to deal with the PKK that has been largely missed in Western media coverage of Turkish saber rattling. There are good reasons why Turkey’s generals may not, in fact, be anxious to cross the border. And the push-pull between the AKP and its secular critics over who should take responsibility for ordering such an operation has a strong whiff of election politics.

A close reading of comments by Turkey’s Chief of Staff suggests he, at least, understands that hitting PKK sanctuaries in Iraqi Kurdistan, whatever its military value, is not without serious risks. He has explicitly mused on the difficulty in defining the mission and on potential unintended consequences. How to declare “success” against so illusive a foe? What if Massoud Barzani’s peshmerga shoot back? He has not articulated, but cannot have failed to realize, other likely downsides: sparking an actual increase in terror inside Turkey by a PKK anxious to show it is still in business; jeopardizing quiet but significant U.S. intelligence and other cooperation against the PKK.

Most importantly, the generals must know that intervention in Iraq could drive the United States and Mr. Barzani closer together in the run-up to this fall’s referendum on the status of Kirkuk. Postponing the referendum is among Ankara’s highest strategic priorities. Turks hope a Bush administration reaching a pivotal moment in its “surge” will ultimately prevail upon Mr. Barzani to defer the poll. But if the Americans have used capital with Iraqi Kurds to manage the consequences of a Turkish incursion, they may find Mr. Barzani harder to handle when they turn to Kirkuk.

It’s not unreasonable for Turkey’s generals to want their “civilian masters” to have ownership of so consequential an outcome. And it has been Turkey’s secular political parties, rather than the soldiers, who have been most enthusiastically beating the drum for going into northern Iraq. But there is no question that the military’s periodic emphasis on the utility of a cross-border operation has been the key factor in “terror” having displaced “secularism” as the hot button issue in Turkey’s ongoing general election campaign.

The significance of that has been twofold. On the one hand, it has put Mr. Erdogan on the defensive as “weak on terror,” complicating AKP’s strategy of running on its impressive record of reform and economic growth. On the other, it has generated support for nationalist parties, particularly the National Action Movement (MHP), which is now polling nationally near the 10 percent level necessary to be allocated seats in the next Parliament.

This is where Turkey’s genuine terror concerns and its messy local politics come together. If MHP did take 10 percent of the vote July 22, it would join the AKP and the other main opposition party (CHP) in the next Parliament. Under Turkey’s complicated proportional representation system, the impact of a third party being seated would be to pare significantly the number of deputies allocated to AKP (and to a lesser extent CHP).

AKP would almost certainly remain the largest party in the next Parliament, and would likely form or lead the next government. But it would lack the two-thirds majority necessary to elect Turkey’s next president or change its Constitution. That would mean its secular opponents would have succeeded in blocking, perhaps permanently, AKP’s plan to put one of its own in the presidency, with its significant checks and balances. It would also mean the Turkish military would not be called upon to back up their April 27 Web site statement suggesting they would not accept an AKP president.

Thus, getting MHP over the 10 percent threshold creates a strong incentive in some quarters to keep the terrorism pot at a boil. The MHP and CHP are taking every opportunity (e.g., at soldiers’ funerals) to exploit the issue.

The military has been more circumspect, but Turkey’s media pounce on and magnify the military’s every comment. AKP leaders have done their best to sound as muscular as their critics, though they seem to understand as well as their generals the risks of crossing the border.

Politics is politics, and there are many in and outside Turkey who believe it would not be a bad thing to keep a single party from controlling all the country’s civilian institutions. The problem with the current debate there over PKK terror is it could easily get out of hand. The players on both sides have painted themselves into such tight rhetorical corners and have so aroused popular emotions that a dramatic new terrorist act could force both Mr. Erdogan and the General Staff to order an operation they appear not, in fact, to want.

Some believe that in those circumstances, the best thing for the U.S. would be to look the other way. Given our intersecting interests in northern Iraq and beyond, we would probably not have that luxury. Any Turkish move across the border would—at best—be a major distraction from the hard work that needs to be done in Iraq in the months ahead. There are no doubt good reasons why the Bush administration, despite its consistent position that “there is no place for the PKK in post-Saddam Iraq” has failed to respond to Turkish concerns.

That failure today leaves Washington vulnerable to the vagaries of PKK boldness and, increasingly, Turkey’s boisterous internal politics.