Iraq is teetering on the edge, but this one is not into civil war. Iraq could find itself at war with Turkey. It is stunning to imagine that a nation in name only; with (reportedly) fewer than 10,000 soldiers “combat capable;” living under a foreign occupation and an increasingly bloody struggle for power; could find itself having to defend its “sovereignty” against Turkey.
The issue is the increasingly open conflict between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey. Turkey has a long history of conflict with the Kurds, and has been adamant about not allowing a Kurdish state on their border… and that Kurdish state has been a threat since the U.S. made an alliance with the Kurds prior to invasion and overthrow of Hussain.
Things have been getting increasingly hot on the Iraq-Turkey border. Tensions marked by threats and cross border raids, and recent shelling by Turkey (which are largely being officially denied). However, there is no denying the increasing tension, and Kurdish refusal of Turkey’s demands to stop the PKK – a labeled terrorist organization – from its alleged attacks inside Turkey.
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has stated that he would not stand in the way of a military request to attack across the border:
“Today a foreign news agency announced that Turkey was involved in an over-the-border operation. Later, these reports were denied. What is it that is desired with these sorts of reports? If actions based in northern Iraq and aimed at our country don’t make us uncomfortable, who will they make uncomfortable? There is no argument between our administration and the military’s General Staff on this front. If there are to be over-the-border operation steps taken, we will first enter into talks with our security forces, and then it will be carried to the Parliament. If a request comes from the armed forces, we will not stand in front of them. What the time comes, we will do what is needed.”
As I noted in my May 5, 2007 article Of Surges and Purges, open conflict – even war – between the Kurds and Turkey would place the United States in a very bad position. Two allies of the US essentially at war with each other, with the United States essentially pledged to protect Iraq, could result in the U.S. at war with Turkey.
While the sore point with Turkey are with the Kurds, the Kurds are in Iraq and part of the Iraqi government. An attack on the Kurds by another nation is an attack on Iraq. It seems unlikely (and perhaps in the long term unwise) to act as if such conflict is “regional” rather than national.
Utilizing a convoluted and callous logic, open conflict between Iraq and Turkey could serve multiple purposes. For Turkey, which is facing a political crisis in a power match between secular and religious tug of war for political power, a “war” might serve as a unifying action. Ironically, the same might be true with Iraq. While, the Kurds have been separate for some time from the rest of Iraq, they are part of Iraq. An invasion of northern Iraq could be a rallying and unifying point for Iraqis. It might also be a blessing to the U.S. occupation as Turkey could be labeled as the “invader” rather than U.S. forces. Of course, that might damage any alliance between the U.S. and Turkey.
Despite the fact of a long U.S. – Iraqi Kurd alliance, the U.S. has historically been willing to look the other way regarding attacks from Turkey. Under the long sanctions that were placed on Iraq, the United States implemented the northern “No-fly zone.”* While the Northern No-Fly Zone protected the Kurdish area from Hussain, those protections were periodically withdrawn so the Turkish Air Force could make bombing runs into northern Iraq.**
The fact that Turkey has been accepted to candidacy to membership in the European Union may prove a double-edged sword. Would the EU feel somewhat bound to back Turkey in such a conflict, or would it distance itself? There has already been some distancing of the EU from Turkey because of the political turmoil in Turkey.
Given that part of the EU has supported the U.S. invasion and occupation (most strongly Britain and Poland) would Turkish military action against Iraq pose a further challenge to a sometimes contentious European Union?
Certainly, the ongoing conflict between the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey is yet one more instability in a region that is becoming increasingly unstable. It is not a desirable development to have that expand into “formal” military action. Such conflict, even at its present level, is thorn in the foot of stability in Iraq.
* Contrary to rhetoric, the no-fly zones did not have UN approval, and were not part of UN sanctions.
** This information from a personal military source who was part of that operation.