Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that if Turkey’s generals wish, he will secure parliamentary support for them to carry out a cross-border operation into northern Iraq to go after the Kurdish separatist PKK. In April, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military believes such an operation is necessary, and that he thinks that it would be successful. He noted, however, that such a plan requires government approval.
Gen. Buyukanit’s comments illustrated the point that Mr. Erdogan frequently makes: the military is a sub-branch of his government, subject to the prime minister’s orders. As one Iraqi official puts it, Gen. Buyukanit swallowed his pride and left the decision to Mr. Erdogan’s government, which has no desire to undertake such a military endeavor. “I told [Iraqi Kurds] that his remarks were good news,” this Iraqi official said. Or as Faruk Logoglu, Turkey’s former ambassador to Washington, says, the prime minister is trying to dodge responsibility for such an action.
“That decision [to cross the border into northern Iraq] belongs to the government,” Mr. Logoglu told me. “If the military works under his orders, he should take responsibility.” The problem is that Mr. Erdogan wants it both ways. He wants to make it clear that the military works under his orders, and he has threatened to carry out a cross-border operation into northern Iraq numerous times in the past.
But now, with the election on the horizon, he is passing the buck, saying it’s the military’s decision. Mr. Erdogan does not want to jeopardize his reputation as a populist. Yet the very rhetoric he fed to the Turkish people has created among them an intense expectation that a military operation should take place — and he refuses to follow through. As a result, his rhetoric causes Turkey to lose credibility.
Meanwhile, everyone is trying to figure out what kind of influence the United States will have on the early election results. U.S. officials deny that they have any sway — specifically, a PKK card — but many people here in the capital city of Ankara believe that the United States implicitly and explicitly supports Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party. Three recent events support such a theory. First, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice unexpectedly lent her support to the AK Party at a Senate hearing. Second, Turkey’s terrorism coordinator, retired Gen. Edip Baser, was fired as a result of his remarks that a joint effort by Turkey, the United States and Iraq to defeat the PKK failed to produce substantive results. Gen. Baser has been replaced by career diplomat Rafet Akgunay.
Some Beltway insiders in Ankara think that because of these two factors, the United States will be unable to take visible action against the PKK until after the election, lest any activity it be seen as proof that it favors the AK Party. And as if the situation weren’t complicated enough, on May 22 — just one day after Gen. Baser was fired — a Kurdish suicide bomber — first in Turkey’s history — blew himself up in a busy commercial district in Ankara. Radikal daily reported that the bomber received training in northern Iraq. Simultaneously, two potential suicide-bombers were arrested at different points in the country. In the meantime, the military says the PKK has already smuggled hundreds of pounds of plastic explosives from Iraq.
Qubad Talabani, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative in Washington, recently told me that in order for Turkey to carry out an operation in northern Iraqi territory, “there would need to be very clear evidence that an attack on Turkey emanated from inside Iraqi Kurdistan.” He said, “To this date, I’m still skeptical of the reports and the claims about the numbers of attacks that have generated from Iraqi Kurdistan. There is no solid intelligence on this. The U.S. does not have solid intelligence on this.”
Whether the United States would agree with him is a different question, but Turks view U.S. inaction as support for PKK terrorism. When I went to the bombing site the next day, a man in his fifties who did not wish to be identified said, “We should have been like Israel. If someone kills one of them, they kill five. That is the way to be a serious state. These people [terrorists] understand only power.” Another man in his sixties, Ali Karayilan, said, “The parliament needs to hold an urgent meeting to decide on a cross-border operation [into northern Iraq]. Instead, our leaders make a call to the U.S. to get permission.” And State Department spokesman Tom Casey stressed, “We certainly don’t think that unilateral military action from Turkey… would solve anything.”
More than ever, Turks are demanding that their government mount a military operation into northern Iraq to rout and destroy PKK terrorism. Mr. Logoglu says he thinks any operation would be a military success. But in the long run, such an action could have negative repercussions for Turkey. And Mr. Erdogan appears to be trying to avoid responsibility for those consequences in the midst of his campaign. Yet, nothing justifies him provoking Turks against the military on this very sensitive issue.
Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.