Iraq's Kurdish north has been a sanctuary for thousands of Iraqis fleeing the chaos and sectarian killings in Baghdad and the volatile provinces. That could all change after Turkey's Parliament burst into applause on Oct. 17 upon authorizing a military incursion against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq-a blow to the battered Iraqi government and its war-weary civilians.
Turkish leaders say that an assault is not imminent, but their action provoked Washington and Baghdad. President George Bush urged Turkish leaders to rethink the resolution. Iraqi leaders-fearful that such an incursion could throw their only peaceful region into chaos-flew to Ankara to persuade its leaders to engage in diplomacy instead of combat.
Journalist and political writer Kenneth Timmerman recently spent several days with Iranian Kurdish rebels in Iraq who control some of the area Turkey considers "cleaning out." The terrain is treacherous, he said, with mountain peaks reaching past 10,000 feet and roads susceptible to guerrilla attacks. He has little faith that Turkey can maneuver a successful operation in northern Iraq. "The Kurds will do what they have done for generations, which is to simply melt back into the mountains," Timmerman told WORLD.
Classified as a terrorist group by the United States and others, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, has plagued Ankara for decades. Although their quest for a Kurdish state within Turkey eventually transformed into a less-threatening crusade for basic rights, an escalation in violence in the past two years has rekindled old hostilities. Two recent attacks-one that killed 13 Turkish soldiers and a bus ambush that left 12 civilians dead-again brought the Kurdish clash to the forefront of Turkish politics.
The vast majority of Kurds don't support PKK and its splinter groups. Iraqi Kurdistan depends on trade with Turkey to support the growing population of both native Kurds and those newly displaced from the south. President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, called on the PKK to end its guerrilla warfare in Turkey and urged Ankara not to send more troops into Iraq: "We consider the activities of the PKK against the interests of the Kurdish people first and then against the interests of Turkey."
David Cuthell, Executive Director for the Institute of Turkish Studies, says the Kurds would have their own state "in a perfect world" but are "cursed by geography and history." The Kurdish people comprise an estimated 20 percent of Turkey's population and have substantial minorities in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
Turkey has received its share of international criticism for human-rights abuses against Kurdish minorities. And Timmerman says the Kurds fighting today are quite different from the old PKK. Their primary grievance is an article in the new Turkish constitution-set for ratification later this month-stating that the people of Turkey are Turks: "The Kurds believe-rightfully so in my view-that this amounts to ethnic supremacy."
Complicating diplomacy is a congressional measure labeling as genocide the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey during World War I recently approved in the U.S. House. The resolution-largely ceremonial and backed by Democratic leadership-lost steam after almost a dozen lawmakers withdrew support. Some cited warnings from the White House, which called the measure "dangerously provocative," while others attributed their shift to the possibility of Turkey severing diplomatic ties while allies in the region are in short supply.
Cuthell says the measure is philosophically bankrupt: "This is just walking up to the Turks, poking them in the eye, and then asking them to do a favor," he said.
Underlying the fear of severed ties with Turkey is the Iranian threat. Timmerman, who serves as the executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, suspects Turkey's leaders are on a journey toward an Islamic state and says the country's recent military and economic alliance with Iran, "which includes joint military planning for the offensive against the Kurds," is "especially troubling."
With winter around the corner, rebel activities are expected to go dormant, providing new opportunities for diplomacy. "The U.S. and Turkey have a real deep and profound congruence at many levels," said Cuthell, "and we need to make sure we don't let untamed remarks and resolutions undermine what has been a long-standing and very solid relationship."