Turkey vs. Iraq?

While Capitol Hill battles the White House over Iraq, another battle is brewing in the Middle East. In the last week the Turkish military has moved 140,000 troops from across its country to the southern border with Iraq. These troops represent an invasion force meant to prevent the continued terrorist activities of the Kurdish minority that use northern Iraq as a safe haven. Turkey has previously voiced its intent to attack elements of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) after repeated bombings and recent attacks on civilians in the south of Turkey. If Ankara chooses to use military force in the north of Iraq now, the results would be dire for the future security and stability of Iraq.

The effects of Turkey conducting military operations in northern Iraq would undermine the fragile security environment that currently exists in two major ways. First, the Kurdish soldiers that are operating in Baghdad as part of the U. S. military “surge” would be tempted to abandon their posts in order to protect their homeland in the north. Second, because Turkish troops would not likely remain for long in the north of Iraq, the remaining PKK fighters could regroup and continue to use northern Iraq as a base of operations for its recent offensive attacks in Turkey. Iraq would have difficulty meeting either of these challenges. To face both simultaneously would only exasperate and quicken the destabilization of Iraq and the region.

Northern Iraq is more than just another piece of territory for Kurds. It is a homeland: it is Kurdistan. For decades Kurds have fought to secure northern Iraq in order to build a Kurdish nation, a nation that finally seems within reach. However, Kurds are also an essential part of the future of Iraq. Most recently, the Kurds have sent three brigades of the Iraqi Army from the north, composed of a vast majority of Kurdish soldiers, into Baghdad to assist in security operations as part of the surge of U.S. forces. These three brigades represent about 10,000 soldiers and are an essential part of the strategy for securing Baghdad. This number does not even account for the other Kurdish soldiers that are serving in other units in Baghdad. Were Turkey to attack Kurdistan, these soldiers would undoubtedly leave Baghdad to defend their homeland, choosing Kurdistan over Iraq. The loss of these 10,000 indigenous, well-trained soldiers would threaten the already tenuous security situation even more.

If Turkey did invade northern Iraq, the incursion would not lack precedent. In 1995 and 1997, Turkey used 35,000 soldiers to conduct raids against the PKK. In both cases they remained in Iraq for fewer than 60 days and did not completely eradicate the Kurdish elements that they claimed were responsible for conducting attacks. A future invasion would be similar: a short incursion with limited success. Indeed, an incursion by Turkish forces against PKK elements would violate the new perception of territorial sovereignty that has grown in Kurdistan since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

While most Kurds in northern Iraq are not members of the PKK, a perceived violation of territorial sovereignty of Kurdistan would unify the Kurdish population to either support the PKK to a greater extent or develop an increased Kurdish independence movement. Without the support of the Kurdish population, especially their military, the unity and stabilization of Iraq will be severely inhibited, requiring either more U.S. military forces to fill in the gaps left by the Kurdish troops or instigating a civil war that could spread throughout the region. The Kurdish population is one of the only stable influences in Iraq and the loss of their support would reverberate throughout Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Turkey’s invasion of Iraq would have limited benefits for Turkey and disastrous implications for Iraq. The violation of state sovereignty that a Turkish incursion represents would present the Iraqi government as ineffectual and unable to protect its own borders. Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq, would be forced into a difficult position, having to choose between his ethnic group and his country. Turkey would gain little more than a minor disruption of PKK activity and would ultimately foster increased hostility from the Kurdish community, including the possibility of establishing an open policy of support for Kurdish separatists in other countries.

The only foreseeable solution is for a joint U.S.-Turkish-Kurdish agreement that focuses on addressing the PKK elements and not Kurdistan as a whole. Turkey will not likely be pacified by a political agreement alone and will demand evidence of action against the PKK locations. If the United States does expect to stop an invasion, an agreement with Turkey must be negotiated soon. While cooperating with Turkey will be distasteful to many Kurds, it will not be nearly as insulting as an outright invasion. A Turkish invasion will force the Kurds to choose between Kurdistan and Iraq. And in this choice, Iraq will lose out.

Richard May served as an officer in the U.S. Army