The Turkish Incursion into Iraq: Turkey "Draining the Sea to Catch the Fish"

By Ferhadi, Ahmed | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1995 | Go to article overview

The Turkish Incursion into Iraq: Turkey "Draining the Sea to Catch the Fish"


Ferhadi, Ahmed, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


The Turkish Incursion Into Iraq: Turkey "Draining the Sea to Catch the Fish"

By Ahmed Ferhadi

Just as Kurds were preparing for nowruz, their new year which falls on March 21, a force of 35,000 Turkish troops with armor and air support crossed into the "safe haven" of Iraqi Kurdistan in an attempt to destroy the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. This zone usually is protected by the allied forces of the United States, Britain and France, but when the Turkish invasion began on March 20, these forces suspended all of their aircraft sorties. The Turkish attack, known as Operation Steel, created thousands of new refugees but utterly failed in its self-declared goals.

The incursion drew sharp criticism from Turkey's European allies, but was carried out with the connivance of the U.S., whose criticism of the invasion was only luke-warm, and with the congnizance of Iraq, which had been notified of the impending foray in mid-February when Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Said al-Sahaf visited Turkey. Iraq initially hoped the attack would help restore its control over the north, and Baghdad maintained a studied silence for days. When it became clear that Turkey was seeking the cooperation of the Iraqi Kurdish leadership in the expulsion of the PKK, however, Iraq strongly denounced the operation.

The ostensible aim of the Turkish invasion was to "root out" 2,500 PKK rebels in northern Iraq. The massive attack (the largest of its kind in the history of the Turkish republic, even outstripping its invasion of Cyprus two decades ago) was by no means commensurate with its declared objective.

The hidden agenda of Operation Steel was to coerce Iraqi Kurds into a rapprochement with Saddam Hussain's regime and to pressure the West to lift its international embargo of Iraq by exploiting apparent differences among the allies over sanctions. Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller makes no bones about longing to see Saddam's authority restored over Iraqi Kurdistan, and a week into the invasion then-Turkish Foreign Minister Murat Karayelcin stressed that the solution to the situation in northern Iraq lay in lifting the international embargo and implementing autonomy for Iraqi Kurds. Karayelcin was referring to the defunct autonomy deal of March 1974 between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurds, which was a travesty.

Kurdish Hopes and Turkish Fears

Both Masoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and Jalal Talabani, leader of the Kurdistan Union Party (PUK), swiftly condemned the Turkish invasion. Although they have no ideological quarrel, the KDP and PUK have engaged in bitter intermittent fighting over the last year. American, Iranian and Turkish attempts to encourage reconciliation between Barzani and Talabani have been to no avail. Because of this power struggle, the average Iraqi Kurd is growing disillusioned with and increasingly skeptical of the two parties.

In May 1991, hopeful Iraqi Kurds had queued--many until midnight--to cast their votes in the first democratic elections in their lifetimes. The KDP and PUK split all of the seats in the new Iraqi Kurd parliament, resulting in a 50-50 split in all aspects of the first Kurdish government. The cabinet included a prime minister and various other ministers, but not defense or foreign affairs portfolios, since the goal of the Kurds was federation within a post-Saddam Iraq, not secession and independence.

Barzani and Talabani stayed outside the Kurdish government, however, rendering it cash-strapped and impotent. Real authority remained within the KDP and PUK, while the double embargo (that of the international community on all of Iraq and Saddam's own blockade of northern Iraq) further curtailed the resources available to the fledgling Kurdish government.

This situation, in addition to the recent KDP-PUK infighting, created the "vacuum" which, according to Ankara, has enabled Turkey's banned PKK to establish bases inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey used this argument as a pretext for its incursion last March, yet Ankara itself has contributed to the vacuum of authority by refusing to deal with the Kurdish government and parliament, preferring to deal directly with the KDP and PUK--whose collaboration it is demanding in the fight against the PKK. …

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