Visitors to Ankara these days hear their Turkish hosts bursting with self-congratulation for their prudence in resisting Washington’s demands to come aboard the 2003 US-led campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – or even letting the American army invade Iraq from their soil.
Turkish officials and generals do not conceal their conviction that the Iraq crisis will continue to go downhill and that President George W. Bush‘s new strategy is doomed to fail, even with the injection of an extra 21,000 US troops.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Ankara sources report that Turkey has had a change of heart towards Iraqi Kurdistan in the light of these evaluations. Up until early January, Turkish troops were poised for a deep invasion of the northern Iraqi region in any of three contingencies:
1. A move by the Iraqi-Kurdish president Jalal Talabani and provincial president Masoud Barzani to seize control of Kirkuk and its oil fields.
2. An escalation of Turkish-Kurdish PKK guerrilla operations against Turkey from bases in Iraqi Kurdistan.
3. An Iranian invasion of northern Kurdistan to destroy the bases in Iraq of Iran’s Kurdish independence movement PKKI. Up until six weeks ago, Ankara’s standing guideline was that an Iranian incursion of Kurdistan would be met with a Turkish invasion.
However, in the interim, there have been developments. The most telling was the desertion of many Kurdish troops brought to Baghdad as part of the US-Iraqi buildup for its security crackdown in the capital. The Kurds going AWOL argue the Baghdad campaign is an American war – not theirs.
Ankara’s priorities have accordingly been switched around. No longer uppermost are the underground PKK havens in northern Iraq and the possible seizure of Kirkuk. What the Turks fear most of all now is the prospective spillover into their country of the anarchy engulfing parts of Iraq, its sectarian warfare and its al Qaeda terrorists, lest their southeastern provinces be infected.
This policy somersault surfaced in Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul’s talks in Washington this week in advance of the visit on Feb. 11 by prime minister Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish chief of staff General Yasar Buyukanit.
Turks prepare for the worst-case Iraq scenario
Ankara clearly does not believe that Iraq – and Baghdad in particular – will be stabilized any time soon and is anxious to keep this wolf from their door. Turkish leaders have determined that their best defense would be a strong central Kurdish regime in Irbil as a bulwark to hold back the tide of Iraqi turbulence before it surges across their frontier.
Secret talks on this point took place in Irbil between high-ranking Turkish emissaries and the two Kurdish leaders, Talabani and Barzani from mid-January to the first week of February.
The Turkish side put forward the following proposals:
- Ankara will guarantee to refrain from an invasion of or major military action in Iraqi Kurdistan if the two leaders promise to keep PKK rebel operations down to the bare minimum, so that the Ankara government and army’s popular credibility is not prejudiced.
- Turkey renounces its claims on Kurkuk and its oil fields in return for Kurdish acceptance of an autonomous Turkemani enclave within their region. Talabani and Barzani turned this down, maintaining that most Turkemani parties are represented in the Kurdish parliament.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that the Turkeman Front, which has spurned seats in parliament, is whipping up resistance among Turkish and Iraqi Turkemani expatriates living in the United States with accusations of a sell-out of their rights by the Kurds and Ankara. Kurdish intelligence has begun targeting TF activists. Last week, two explosive devices were detonated alongside the convoy of the Turkeman Front’s leader Saad e-Din Arkij south of Kirkuk. He escaped unhurt but some of his bodyguards were killed.
- Turkey lobbied for a cordon sanitaire 30 km wide in Kurdish territory. Local institutions and security control would remain Kurdish hands. Its negotiators explained that the terrain’s topography made it impossible for Turkish troops to defend the border solely from their own side. Talabanin and Barzani promised further discussion of this request.
The deals Turkey has negotiated with Iraq’s Kurdish leaders, as well as the Iran issue, will feature in the talks Turkish leaders hold during their official visit to Washington next week.