Southeastern Turkey, Syria, and northern Iraq (Perry-Castaneda)
There is currently a media blackout on Turkey's military operation in the south of the country and in northern Iraq. The American as well as the European press have hardly covered it. Initial reports in the international media, which cited Turkish "security circles," spoke of several thousand Turkish soldiers having entered Iraq in a "very limited" operation. These reports, however, were later denied by the Turkish foreign ministry, Iraqi border officials, as well as by the White House.
At this point, we can only speculate about what is truly transpiring. Clearly, the Turkish military is engaging in a large-scale operation against the PKK within its own borders; most likely, it has also carried the fight into Iraq. The Kurdish separatist group has stepped up its terror campaign inside Turkey in the past few months, providing the Turks with plenty of reasons for a response in southern Turkey as well as against hide-outs and camps across the border.
Turkey has conducted many cross-border raids in the past, and aside from denying that Turkish troops are in Iraq, both the U.S. and the Turks are publicly playing down the scope of this operation. However, there are people in Turkey who are hoping and/or expecting this to be a far more significant move than that. Dr. Melih Can, an "international relations expert," has a long article in Today's Zaman, which I think expresses some of the foreign policy aspirations and grievances of members of the Turkish elite, as they have developed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
I previously encountered Can's name last August, when he published a piece on Russian policy in the Middle East. The article, "Did Russia have a hand in stopping Israel?" was a mixture of analysis and wishful (though not entirely unrealistic) thinking that resembles his more recent piece about Turkish ambitions in the region. Writing in the wake of the Lebanon war, Can seemed to me a bit too convinced that Israel had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Hizbullah:
The war Israel waged against the Hezbollah will go down in history for destroying the Israeli army’s image of invincibility as much as for the massacres of civilians (Zaman, August 17, 2006).Can attributed special significance to Hizbullah's supposed successes against Israeli tanks:
Known as the source of Israeli military might and named the “mountain steel,” the Israeli-made Merkava tanks, destroyed one by one by the Hezbollah became a symbol for this crushing defeat.This, of course, is nothing but hyperbole. Hizbullah actually did not destroy Israeli tanks "one by one." It is true that one older Merkava model was blown up by a massive mine in the initial pursuit across the border, after Hizbullah's kidnapping action. It is also correct that, after the war, Israel complained that Russia had armed Hizbullah with advanced anti-tank missiles (of the type Metis), and that a few of these put some older Merkava tanks out of commission. However, the main damage that Israeli troops incurred at the hand of this weaponry was not to tanks but to soldiers sleeping in houses.
The main point that Can was trying to make in that piece, however, was about Russia's moves to thwart American and Israeli power in the region in order "to continue in its traditional role of selling arms, directly or indirectly, to Middle Eastern governments and organizations," and to "rectify[...] the role of Russian businessmen in the region’s energy sector" (Zaman). Interestingly enough, the article does not mention Turkey's role in these moves at all. In his latest contribution to the debate, Can lets the cat out of the bag.
While Can's more recent article is not explicitly pro-Russian, it brims with resentment about American limitations on Turkish ambitions in the region. The sense of wounded pride is especially palpable in the penultimate paragraph of the article, in which Can gives the US two choices:
either to pull new “canvas sacks” over Turkey’s head or to enter into a fresh compromise with Turkey in the near future (Zaman, June 7, 2007).The "canvas sacks," I believe, are a reference to the "hood event" in July 2003, when U.S. troops arrested Turkish special forces operating in northern Iraq, and put hoods or canvas bags over their heads. That incident provoked an uproar in Turkey and was apparently the basis of a 2006 feature film based on the television show "Valley of the Wolves" (whose distribution was blocked in the US, in part due to accusations of antisemitism and anti-Americanism)
According to Can, an over-the-border military operation by Turkey would be about much more than a response to PKK terrorist attacks. Rather, he argues, it would be about "Turkey's new role within the Middle East," and whether the country is to follow a "mission appropriate to its own history or a more independent set of policies" (Zaman). By "appropriate to its own history," Can seems to mean a policy in line with its Cold War pro-American alignment - not one that accords with Turkey's "historical destiny." The trans-border operation, in Can's mind, thus figures as a crucible for Turkey - it will clarify both the country's willingness to pursue its real interests, as well as America's stance vis-à-vis a more independent Turkey. In that sense, an "over-the-border operation" marks a crossing of the Rubicon, and seems very much bound up with Turkey's destiny in the region.
Kirkuk (Source: Perry-Castaneda)
Can's claim that "there is an extremely pressing need for a breaking point right now, with this need emerging as an over-the-border military operation," is full of expectation of some change, and the sense that aggressive action is necessary for Turkey to break free from the force containing it. That force, it becomes clear, is the U.S., which has pushed Turkey into a difficult predicament. Can distinguishes 7 sub-forces, almost all of which are closely linked to American involvement in the region:
1. the beginning of America's withdrawal, and its alleged "encouragement of various ethnic and sectarian clashes within the framework of its 'New Middle East Strategy.'"I may be misinterpreting Can, but it seems to me that he even accuses the U.S. of being behind #7. He argues that to prevent Turkey's entry into northern Iraq, "the US is using all possible tools and national dynamics possible in Turkey ... [and that] this is how the current domestic political crisis, blockages and lack of stability in Turkey need to be understood." I am not sure whether Can is implying that the U.S. is supporting Erdogan in his recent show-down with the military and secularists or the latter. It is also possible that he is alluding to U.S. support for the Kurds in Turkey (unlikely), or perhaps even the Armenian Genocide resolution in the American Congress (also unlikely).
2. increased awareness of threats to Turkey from northern Iraq, and the "provocation of Turkey by the PKK-Barzani relationship"
3. the danger facing Iraqi Turkmens and Kirkuk
4. "the irresponsible and one-sided stance of the US administration"
5. an "increase in activities aimed at shaking the prestige of Turkey and the Turkish Armed Forces"
6. the involvement of other countries in Iraq, most notably Iran
7. Turkey's domestic political situation
Can argues that the Americans aim primarily to have Ankara coordinate its activities with Washington, according to the latter's interests. But Turkey's post-Cold War foreign policy has increasingly diverged from America's, and the U.S.
has become uncomfortable with Turkey's displays of a more independent stance, the attempts to define the agenda, moves to forge new alliances and, as a result, entrance into a new period in the "Turkish-Islamic" world through a venture involving Russia and Iran (Zaman).Both Turkey's increasingly eastern orientation in the region - Can speaks of shifts in the Ankara-Damascus-Cairo-Riyadh-Tehran-Islamabad line - and its refusal to subordinate itself to America's stance on Russia (the Turks are not cooperating with the U.S. strategic aim of building a gas pipeline network that provides a viable alternative to Russia's Gazprom) testify to a clash of interests. Of particular concern to the U.S., is the possibility that Turkey will go for an even more independent policy vis-à-vis Iran.
Source: WikipediaOn the other hand, in the Caucasus, American and Turkish interests seem so far to coincide, as both countries have invested a great deal in strengthening Georgia and Azerbaijan (see our post on some of the pipelines). Still, in the Middle East, or as Can says, "in the former Ottoman Empire areas," the Turks are clearly flexing their muscles. Turkey has emerged as a respected (by the Arabs) "mediator" in the region who might undermine American pre-eminence as a broker, and the
respect and esteem achieved by Turkey in the former Ottoman Empire areas following March 1, 2003 have only served to underscore its capacity for changing current regional balances in the future (Zaman).March 1, 2003, of course, was the date on which the Turkish parliament ended up rejecting U.S. troop deployment in the country ahead of the invasion of Iraq. Turkey, in other words, Can says, is no longer content to play the "memorized roles" that it performed during the Cold War.
It is true, of course, that the PKK's terrorism in Turkish cities is also an important motivating factor for action in northern Iraq. Turkey's patience with U.S. declarations about the problem of attacks carried out from bases in Iraqi Kurdistan has run out. Furthermore, according to Can, the Turkish Army does not take seriously "veiled threats" against the Kurds as well as against Turkish incursions (on the latter, see my January post on former Pentagon Undersecretary Dov Zakheim's op-ed). Turkey's Chief of Staff, General Yaşar Buyukanit has apparently not ruled out a confrontation with American troops, and there is a pro-Russian tendency in the military.
Can's hope - and hence the sense of expectation - is that an "over-the-border operation" will finally address a complicated set of policy problems that require resolution. In particular, he believes that it could clarify
1.Turkish-Western relations (Turkey-US as well as Turkey-EU)This seems to me a very tall order that will probably be disappointed and thus lead to further frustration. But very much will depend on the American response. It is possible that the U.S. has been denying that anything unusual is taking place precisely because it does not want the "over-the-border operation" to extend beyond the immediate problem of the PKK. News of a large Turkish invasion, with designs on Kirkuk, would be an untenable provocation and force the U.S.'s hand. However, in the meantime, it appears that the Americans have left the Kurds to confront the threat by themselves (a May 30 agreement handed security in three provinces over to the Kurdistan Northern Regional Government), and are waiting things out on the sidelines.
2. Turkish-Russian, Turkish-Iranians, and Turkish-Iranian-Russian relations
3. the future of Iraq and a Kurdish state, and thereby, "the partnership and friendship of Turkey-Syria-Iran"
4. role of the Kurds in the region, especially Kurdish nationalism around the PKK and Barzani
5. Turkey's new regional and global position, especially the question of whether Turkey will be a global player
6. the terror problem in Turkey and "theoretical 'civil war scenarios'"
7. leadership processes in Turkey.