Talabani on the Confrontation between Turkey and the PKK

The tensions continue to mount after the attack on Turkish troops by Kurdish separatists based in Iraqi Kurdistan:

ISTANBUL, Oct. 21 — A brazen ambush by Kurdish militants that left at least 12 Turkish soldiers dead touched off a major escalation in Turkey-Iraq tensions on Sunday, bringing fears that Turkey would retaliate immediately by sending troops across the border into Iraq. But Turkey’s prime minister said he delayed a decision, after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice personally intervened.

The ambush by a large group of Kurdish militants about three miles from the border with Iraq early on Sunday was seen as a direct provocation on the part of the militants, who have increasingly staged raids into Turkey from hide-outs in the mountains of northern Iraq.

It was the most serious attack in recent memory by the militants, separatist fighters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K., and came only four days after the Turkish Parliament formally approved contingency plans for military retaliation across the border.

The Turkish military struck back inside Turkey, killing as many as 32 Kurdish militants, a government spokesman said. But the Kurdish ambush still drew strong public outrage here, and its brazenness could effectively force the government to make good on its warning to send forces into northern Iraq.

Asharq Alawsat has a timely interview with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, coincidentally the hereditary leader of one of the two most powerful Iraqi Kurdish factions. I urge you to read the whole thing but this is of particular interest:

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Tension persists in the Kurdistan Region. Are you still convinced that it will not lead to a war and an incursion into northern Iraq? What do you think of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s declaration about “eradicating” the Workers Party of Kurdistan’s [PKK] combatants from Iraqi Kurdistan?

(Talabani) This is a sensitive issue and I would like to speak frankly and clearly about it. For some time we have been advising the PKK to abandon armed action. We have told them: We are living in the globalization era. Partisan wars are no longer acceptable or useful. We believe that the PKK should turn to political, parliamentary, diplomatic, and popular action instead of armed action. In a speech that I recently made in Al-Sulaymaniyah, I openly stated that the Kurds do not believe that the PKK’s military acts in Turkey or Iran can serve the Kurdish people’s interests. Indeed they undermine their interests. We believe that armed action hurts democracy in Turkey and hurts Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party [AKP].This party is a new democratic feature that wishes to build a new Turkish society that makes room for Turkey’s Kurds and the other ethnic groups in the country.

The AKP recognizes the existence of a Kurdish people and a Kurdish cause. It adopts a friendly attitude towards using the Kurdish language in the media. Furthermore the recent parliamentary elections were free in the Kurdish areas and led to the election of patriotic Kurdish deputies to parliament. The AKP won more than 60 percent of the Kurdish vote, which means that they are happy with it. This means that carrying out armed actions against this party serves only chauvinist forces in Turkey.

Regarding the presence of PKK combatants in Iraq, our constitution clearly forbids the continued presence of foreign armed forces on Iraqi territory or using such forces to launch armed attacks on neighboring countries. But what can we do? We want the party to depart from the Kurdistan Region and return to its own country where there is more difficult mountainous terrain, a larger territory, and there it can do what it wants. Iraq does not approve of the presence of the PKK combatants and their armed acts. It cannot tolerate them when they go into Turkey and kill people then return to our territory, thus providing an excuse for other forces to attack our areas. What we can do is condemn these acts but we do not have sufficient military forces to send them to the Qandil Mountains to drive them out. We need our military forces to maintain security in Baghdad’s streets and to fight terrorism.

I wish to state that we are willing to operate within the tripartite committee with Turkey and the United States to put an end to the PKK’s activities in Iraqi Kurdistan and to confine them to the Qandil Mountains. At any rate we do not want to allow them to benefit from the current situation.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) Does this mean that as a first step you wish to drive them out of the populated areas?

(Talabani) We drove them out of the cities and are trying to make them leave all the other populated areas. We wish to prevent them from using facilities including contacting parties abroad, bringing sums of money from abroad, and transporting persons from Europe to Iraqi Kurdistan. We need to put an end to all this. We closed down their offices in the Iraqi cities including Baghdad. They used to operate offices in these cities under various guises.

(Asharq Al-Awsat) The Turkish Government wants you to arrest their leaders who are present on Iraqi territory.

(Talabani) We cannot do that. How can we arrest the leaders who are present in the mountains and surrounded by thousands of men? The Turkish army, with all its power, cannot do that. How can we do it?

(Asharq Al-Awsat) What, then, does Nuri al-Maliki mean by his comment about eradicating their bases?

(Talabani) I do not think that this is accurate talk. The prime minister and I have the same view, namely, that we cannot send sufficient Iraqi forces to fight the PKK.

In my view President Talabani is whitewashing the political situation in Iraqi Kurdistan somewhat. I suspect that the PKK who’ve established bases in Iraqi Kurdistan aren’t just invading Turkish Kurds but probably have substantial support for their views and activities among Iraqi Kurds. I don’t know whether this constitutes a challenge to Messrs. Barzani and Talabani or is consistent with their views. Probably some of both.

3 comments… add one
  • Jim Link

    I served a couple of tours in Turkey. Both in the southeast.

    I think there is something unsaid in the recent talk about a possible Turkish move into Iraq: The distinct possibility it would be not just a political debacle for Ankara, but a military debacle for the TAF.

    I don’t think they are capable of an effective operaiton.. When I was there operations against both the PKK and Kurdish miltants (and hese are not identicale) involved heavy use of close air support, and a lot of draconian area denial. Since their dogma centers of: a) air support, and b) emptying and destrcution of villages, resttlement of populations — and garrisoning of troops — which they can’t pull of in Iraq, my guess is this is saber rattling.

    Also unsaid is that Turkey has not had a successful operation against an external force in about 90 years. The only blip was Cyprus, where the correlation of force was about 100 to one, and where Turkey still managed to kill more of its own troops than those of their opponent’s (their air force sank several of their own ships)

    All this noise is about domestic politics in Turkey as the military’s legitimacy — and power — in the political arena has plummeted.

    We might see a token raid or two, but the Kurds seem unfraid because they know this is not much of a real threat.

  • Turkey has had long-term problems with Iranian and Syrian support for factions intra-Turkey. That is seen via the Virtue Party (that is off the top of my head, actual name is probably a variant of that) which gets primary backing from Iran. Syria has a long-standing agreement to arm the Kurds in Turkey and keep a stranglehold on the Kurds in Syria. The amount of political repression on the Kurds in Syria is extremely high and Syria wants zero chance of ‘blowback’ from their funding the PKK. And both are now funding Hezbollah in Turkey, a relatively small group at present.

    Other than that, Turkey has had long-term terrorist problems outside of the PKK, Syria and Iran, including Nationalists and Separatists (Armenian mostly) plus other religious groups opposed to Iran and al Qaeda (what fun!). We hear very little about such bombings and gunplay in the West as it rarely involves Westerners. When it hits Christians or Western groups (US military, overseas banks, cultural centers and such) then we hear muted word of it. The Turkish military, as a whole, has slowly shifted its secularist stance due to an influx of younger recruits that adhere less to that. Ethnic Turks are starting to feel *that* problem, also.

    Turkey is stable due to that waning influence and the major turnout on elections… that those elections are putting folks in that become more virulent over time is a problem and a deep one. And we do forget the history of the Kurds as a people and their warrior cultral tradition. Today their Pesh handle Iranian military incursions with ease and the Turks, though more well armed, will be facing a force that has been under US military tutlege for nearly 15 years. The PKK is still not much of a fighting force, beyond its cultural tenacity and tradition. If Turkey invades, they may just find that airpower will not be their saving grace in rugged terrain where small unit ops trumps masses of men and airpower. It is not wise to mess with the people who brought forth Saladin.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Jim’s comment reinforces a question I had from a previous thread where Dave asked if we were serous about terrorism?

    Cordesman has indicated that Iraqi Kurds have taken losses confronting the PKK. (Haven’t seen details on this anywhere else) Turkey raided Iraq a few times in the 90s, with casualties on both sides, but with no end of the PKK. It does not seem to me that a military campaign is likely to do much more than impose costs on the PKK unless the campaign indiscriminately sought to kill all Kurds in the Qandil Mountains. (I have similar questions about across the border terrorism against Afghanistan and Israel)

    Americans are not committed to killing the last terrorist in the Middle East; they are trying to prop up others to do so. If Turkey wants to invade Qandil Mountains, Americans should slow their diplomatic response to give Turkey about a month to do so. Much longer, and it would be tantamount to annexation.

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