Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Turkish Chief of Staff Says Ankara Has No "Hidden Designs" on Northern Iraqi Kurds

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Turkish Chief of Staff Says Ankara Has No "Hidden Designs" on Northern Iraqi Kurds

Article excerpt

After days of ratcheting tension along Turkey's 352-kilometer [218.7 miles] frontier with northern Iraq-and the deployment of around 10,000 troops targeted straight at the Kurdish irregulars lining up on the other side-it was to much relief late March that the chief of the Turkish General Staff suddenly announced that Turkey had no "hidden designs" on its southern neighbor.

"Considering the uncertainties of the war," Gen. Hilmi Ozkok said March 26, "we will provide the biggest friendly support to Kurdish groups [in northern Iraq] in the thwarting of possible instabilities, as we have done in the past."

Given the possibility that a deployment of Turkish soldiers into northern Iraq might have provoked armed clashes with those self-same Kurdish groups-and even, under not unforeseeable circumstances, with U.S. soldiers as well-it was perhaps no surprise that amid the general sighs of relief the remarkable nature of the general's words went largely unnoticed.

For Ozkok also said that, provided the forces Turkey already had deployed in northern Iraq proved sufficient, there was no need for any more to be deployed. This in itself was an interesting volte-face on the traditional army-and government-line that Turkey had no forces of any kind over the border. This presence of this force had also been routinely denied by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the country's largest Kurdish faction.

Perhaps the most remarkable element of all, however, was the notion that the Kurdish groups in northern Iraq were somehow Turkey's friends.

It had certainly not looked this way only a few weeks before, when a large crowd of Kurds had gathered on the streets of Irbil to burn Turkish flags and vow armed resistance to any Turkish cross-border incursion.

It also seemed to be a difficult position to support given the official Ankara line on why Turkish troops would go in anyway. This was based on three points. First, that following the 1991 Gulf war there had been a mass influx of Iraqi Kurdish refugees into Turkey, with some half a million arriving in a matter of days. In the harsh winter conditions, and with no facilities for lookins after them having been prepared, over a thousand of these refugees died of either starvation or cold. Avoiding such a repeat performance was thus the first stated aim of the army-to hold any refugees on the Iraqi side of the border and to guard refugee camps.

As the war began, however, there appeared to be no refugees heading for Turkey. In fact, KDP leader Mesut Barzani issued instructions in mid-March to those Iraqi Kurds moving out of urban areas to the comparative safety of the countryside not to cross the Turkish frontier.

The second reason for a Turkish intervention was that the border region contained a security threat in the form of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), recently renamed KADEK. These guerrillas, it was said, might try to exploit the chaos of war by infiltrating back into Turkey to restart the armed conflict they had fought there with the Turkish army since the mid-1980s.

Yet that, too, seemed to hold little water, as KADEK has appeared to pose little real threat in recent years, given the capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and its military defeat in southeast Turkey. Observers generally agreed that what forces it did possess were likely strung out and isolated, with little local support.

The third reason was to maintain a more general regional "security." While what this consisted of was never elaborated, it was largely taken to be a euphemism for the real reason for an intervention-to prevent the Iraqi Kurds from declaring independence.

"Each conflict has its fundamental fears and fundamental needs," observed Prof. Nilufer Narli of Istanbul's Marmara University. "The fear of Turkey is of a separate Kurdish state being formed, and that if that happens, it will inspire Turkey's own Kurdish population to start making demands. …

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