Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan meeting with troops along the Iraqi border June 2010. Ankara has increasingly talked about a major military operation against the PKK rebels
Fighting along the Iraqi-Turkish border has stepped up in the last two month. In 2009 the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) chief Abdullah Ocalan, who is in a Turkish prison, offered a negotiated settlement and talked about a turning point in relations with Ankara. Then discussions between the two sides broke down in early 2010, and the PKK began a new offensive against the Turkish government in June. Ankara is threatening a large military operation in response, which will likely carry over into northern Iraq, but it’s not going to change the status quo.
Since May 2010 Turkey has been hitting PKK bases in Turkey and Kurdistan. That month planes struck a PKK camp in northern Iraq that killed 19 fighters. On June 1, the PKK announced the end of their unilateral cease-fire. That was followed by Turkish commandos going two miles into Kurdistan to clear out PKK positions. They retaliated with a bombing in Istanbul that killed five and left twelve wounded. Since then there have been attacks by both sides every couple days, and several hundred families have been displaced in Kurdistan as a result. The Turkish government is now talking about a major offensive to push the PKK out of the border area. In December 2007 and February 2008 Turkish troops went several miles into Kurdistan in similar military operations.
This is a major turnaround from 2009 when it appeared that the two sides were about to work out a deal. That year the PKK announced a unilateral cease-fire, while Ankara talked about an amnesty program, and a democratic solution to its Kurdish issues. The PKK eventually felt like the government was cracking down on its supporters, and decided to return to military action. In January 2010 the deputy head of the PKK announced that change, and in May PKK head Ocalan sent a message to his followers saying that Turkey had ignored his attempts at peace, and that they could return to the fight.
Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is caught in the middle of this conflict. While they turn a blind eye to PKK bases along the Turkish border, they also have to deal with the consequences of Turkish retaliation. In the last two years however, the KRG has tilted towards Ankara. That started with a new Turkish policy in 2008 to divide Turkey’s Kurds from Iraq’s. While they stepped up military operations against the PKK, they greatly increased their political and economic ties with Kurdistan. Turkey became the KRG’s largest trade partner and investor. 80% of the goods sold in the KRG are from Turkey, and 55% of the foreign companies there are Turkish. Turkey also set up a consulate in Irbil led by one of its youngest and brightest diplomats. That has won over Iraq’s Kurds, who complain about Turkish shelling and raids against the PKK in Iraq, but do nothing substantive about them. A recent example was on July 10 when KRG President Massoud Barzani called on the PKK to leave Kurdistan and condemned their recent attacks upon Turkey.
The recent actions by the PKK and Ankara are symptomatic of Turkey’s domestic politics, but also reverberate within Iraq. The PKK has been fighting Turkey since 1978, and Turkish raids, bombing, and shelling along the Iraq-Turkey border has done nothing to change that. In fact, the military operations appear to be aimed at placating the Turkish public more than anything. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is playing up on this as he is up for re-election, so he has increased his hard-line stance against the PKK. More importantly, the breakdown in talks between the two has placed everything largely back to the status quo ante. One thing that has changed is Turkey’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Turkey’s outreach to Iraq’s Kurds has made it a major player within Iraq, and dampens their complaints about attacks upon the PKK. In the long run, fighting along the Iraq-Turkish border is likely to continue until there is a political solution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem.
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