Cocked and Loaded


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 Turkey has been barking about the need to confront the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. If the lack of Iraqi and US action is anything to go by, these concerns have landed on deaf ears. Ankara is not only chaffing at the bit to land the PKK a body blow across the border, measures are in place for a cross-border offensive.

The Turkish army has massively deployed along the Turkish / Iraq border with a reported 140,000 troop build up - just 20,000 shy of the total number of US forces deployed in Iraq this June. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul recently announced that plans were in place for a military incursion into northern Iraq, though for now at least no such action would be taken. Once parliamentarians have taken their seats following the July 22 general elections, an incursion could conceivably be taken to the vote.

The Turks are under no illusions as to what they are likely to achieve with a massive incursion, however. Extermination of the PKK in northern Iraq is unlikely given the asymmetrical nature of guerrilla war. Seriously maiming the outfit by taking out senior members and diminishing the PKK's fighting capabilities is more realistic, as proven in 1995 when Turkey deployed 35,000 troops across the border to this end. Turkish politicians acknowledge that the only successful strategy against the PKK is one that combines muscle with political and social measures - in particular, reducing the plight of Turkey's Kurds in the south-east, expanding and enforcing greater minority rights.

Though acutely aware of the urgency of Turkish concerns, Washington has continued to warn Ankara not to launch a massive incursion next door. Turkey has been baying for the US to take some kind of military action and deliver PKK members to Turkey, though Washington has insisted that Ankara should deal directly with Baghdad and the regional Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq. Stirring up northern Iraq and alienating Iraqi Kurds is the last thing the Bush administration wants, trying as it is - under the critical scrutiny of US Congress - to register greater progress in its military surge. The work of General Ralston and General Baser - both appointed by their respective governments to counter the PKK - was deemed by the Turkish public and politicians as having achieved few tangible results. Patience has worn fibre-thin.

Despite the continuous urgings from Turkey's political opposition and the military, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has refrained from taking a parliamentary vote on an incursion next door prior to the general elections. Doing so could jeopardise their electoral fortunes.

Whatever the timing, a cross-border incursion could trigger a large political fallout with the US and the EU - sparking a dip in investor confidence. The political stakes clearly remain high. In May, the head of the Iraqi Kurdish Administration, Massoud Barzani, spoke of a concerted response by PKK elements in Turkey should the Turks intervene in northern Iraq. Ankara has never bowed to threats, responding with a strongly worded riposte. But the prospect of an escalation of violence in Turkey at the hands of the PKK should not be dismissed. Ankara meanwhile risks creating new enemies in Iraq should it launch a cross-border offensive.

What has previously helped deter Turkey from taking unilateral military action of course remains in place. Though shaken since the US invasion of Iraq, US/Turkish relations remain strategically important for both parties - whether through NATO, weapons trade, the war on terror or otherwise. Providing opponents to Turkey's EU accession bid in Europe with further ammunition is also not in Ankara's interest. While public support in Turkey for EU accession is at an all time low, the current government is unlikely to ditch its drive for membership, particularly given the confidence it has bestowed on the economy and, specifically, the all-essential FDI flow drawn in through economic reform. Ignoring Europe's warnings about Iraq would not be forgotten in Brussels.

That said, national interests frequently collide and northern Iraq figures at the top of Ankara's agenda. Following the suspension of eight chapters for EU accession in December, Ankara is hardly in the mood to accommodate the EU on its every request.

The build up along the border is as much about the gravity of Turkey's concerns as it is about actual intent. An element of strategic brinkmanship may be the medicine necessary to force the Iraqi government and Washington into action, or at least acceptance of the urgency for action. The US could of course look away should Ankara engage in a limited surgical strike. Otherwise, the US, Turkey and Iraq's central government could engage in a joint operation in northern Iraq - a prospect mentioned by Erdogan himself.

The Turks have a gambling chip over the Iraqi Kurds in that the Turkish border constitutes an all-essential gate connecting northern Iraq to the rest of the world. An independent Kurdistan - the formation of which remains Ankara's primary fear - would struggle should Turkey close its border to traffic. In 2005, Turkish exports to Iraq amounted to $2.75bn, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute, the lion's share of which goes to the three governorates of northern Iraq: Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. On the other side, the Kurdish authorities' tolerance of the PKK provides them with bargaining chip over the Turks, placing a degree of pressure on Ankara to recognise their quasi-independent status. But a devastating terrorist strike in the West of Turkey could force Ankara to go it alone should the US continue to dither. Turkey's military machine is cocked and loaded.

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