Already frustrated by their government’s refusal to permit a full-scale invasion against Kurdish rebel hideouts in Iraq, Turkey’s military chiefs’ clamor for a change of policy was fueled this week by the US Congressional committee’s Armenian resolution.
Wednesday night, Oct. 10, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed by 27 votes to 21 a non-binding bill recognizing as genocide the World War I mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks.
This was the first step towards a vote in the House of Representatives.
The opposition Democrats overrode the pleas from President George W. Bush and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who argued that the resolution would bring “great harm to US relations with a key ally in NATO and the war on terror.”
Turkish leaders furiously denounced the motion as unacceptable and invalid and staged a mini-crisis in relations with the US by recalling their ambassador from Washington – albeit “for consultations” and only “up to ten days.”
Turkey’s generals are riding the crest of popular anger against the US resolution and outrage over redoubled PKK Kurdish Workers Party hit-and-run attacks from safe havens in northern Iraqi Kurdistan and pushing hard for a full-scale invasion.
In the past fortnight, Turkey’s separatist rebels of the PKK Kurdish Workers Party have redoubled their attacks on Turkish military and civilians, killing 25 soldiers and 13 civilians, including a boy of seven in three incidents. This spate of violence is the worst in twelve years.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report that two Turkish armored divisions have been parked along the Iraqi border for some weeks, poised to invade northern Iraq at short notice. Their reconnaissance and intelligence units are already operating deep inside Iraq marking targets and routes.
The Turkish army has also declared 27 “security zones” on the Iraqi and Iranian borders off-limits to civilians.
The Turkish high command estimates that it would take those divisions 48-72 hours to drive 40 kilometers into Iraqi Kurdistan.
The rift deepens between Erdogan’s government and the military
Nonetheless, our Ankara sources stress, prime minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan has disappointed them and will continue to do his utmost to hold the military back. He intends to wait for the first outcry against Washington to die down, in the hope that the full House will consider the consequences before endorsing the Armenian resolution.
If it is carried, the Turkish army will be even harder to restrain from invading Iraq there and then as a gesture of defiance against Washington. No one in Turkey will be in the mood to heed the Bush administration’s warning that an invasion of Kurdistan will jeopardize relations.
At the same time, prime minister Erdogan is not one to throw caution to the winds and dump Turkey’s long-term ties with America. Therefore, he is unlikely to act in haste to cut US access to the Incirlik air base or other supply lines crucial to US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as some sources in Ankara have predicted.
In the background of the new crisis is the military’s rising disgruntlement over the small, cross-border operations of special units in hot pursuit of Kurdish rebels, which is all top government security officials have approved.
The rift between the generals and the Erdogan government is consequently deepening.
Wednesday, Oct. 10, to ease military and popular pressure, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) asked parliament to approver a major offensive across the border into northern Iraq.
But the government took care not to commit itself to going through with any such attack. Erdogan still hopes the motion will suffice to prod the U.S. and its allies into robust action against the PKK bases and save Turkey the job.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Ankara sources report that four primary issues divide the Erdogan government and military:
Military opposed to all Kurdish separatist demands
1. Not only on the scale of military action against the PKK, which has fought Turkish forces since 1984 in a war that has killed tens of thousands of rebels, soldiers and civilians. The army is also dead set against the wider issue of Erdogan government’s tendency toward a political solution of the Kurdish question and surrender to their demand for independence.
2. Erdogan and his close ally, the newly elected president Abdullah Gul, do not trust the armed forces to finish the job of eliminating the Kurdish rebel bases, even if they are allowed to go into Iraq in force. After a Turkish cabinet meeting Monday, Oct. 8, the government spokesperson Cemil Cicek did not rule out a Turkish invasion of North Iraq but queried its “usefulness.”
This vote of no confidence in their capabilities leaves the generals feeling diminished and their honor demeaned.
3. The Israeli air strike against Syria on Sept. 6 and the way the Israeli air force made free of Turkish airspace are another sore point between Turkish top brass and political leaders.
Erdogan accuses them of underhand cooperation with the United States and Israel with the deliberate aim of derailing the Islamist government’s policy of ties with the Arab world and Iran.
The army chiefs claim for their part that the government is exploiting the Israeli air strike to further tie their hands in the war against the PKK and Kurdish separatists.
4. Our sources in Ankara report that Turkish army chiefs have been heard grumbling that their government is pussyfooting on terror. They accuse Erdogan of emulating Israel’s Ehud Olmert, who keeps the Israeli military on a tight leash and prevents them from extinguishing Palestinian violence. Turkey’s armed forces feel they are being forced by their government to stand by helpless against raging Kurdish terror for the sake of negotiations for a hallucinatory solution. This stance, they say, is bound to encourage the Kurds to step up their attacks.
Turkish army chief calls attention to danger posed by Iraqi Kurdish independence
But Erdogan still counts on diplomatic maneuvers to keep the lid on the conflict and the army at bay. Last week, urged by Washington to work with Iraq's government to quell the Turkish Kurdish strikes from Iraq, the Turkish interior minister spent three days in Baghdad hammering out a counter-terror accord with Iraq. He came away with a piece of paper that closed all military options to Turkey, including cross-border forays in “hot pursuit” of PKK rebels.
One of most outspoken critics of the government’s Kurdish policy is the commander of land forces Gen. Ilker Basbug, who cannot be brushed aside as he takes over as chief of staff in ten months’ time
The keynote speech, which Gen. Basbug, delivered on Sept. 26 at the opening of the Military Academy’s academic year, poured salt on many wounds. In the view of Gen. Basbug, the Turkish Republic has committed grave errors in its handling of the PKK issue. He stressed the lack of coordination between the security and intelligence branches and the policy-makers and said it was high time the two reorganized for a joint effort to put an end to a conflict which had been allowed to go on far too long.
“The fight against terror is neither completely military nor entirely political,” he said. “Only a military-civilian rapprochement can get the country out of the hole.”
The general sounded another alarm.
“The time for North Iraq’s independence draws nearer every day, and all we do is try to deal with the PKK,” he said. “We don’t attach enough importance to this issue. Yet the independence of Northern Iraq could divide Turkey.”
This was the clearest and most critical assault a leading Turkish military man has addressed to the government in Ankara in recent times. It bodes ill for the fate of Kurdish independence aspirations on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi border.