Middle East

Turkey and Iraq

The Iraqi Kurds, the Turks, and the U.S. War in Iraq

U.S. soldiers escort Turkish trucks through the Iraqi oil refinery town of Baji, 200 miles north of Baghdad
U.S. soldiers escort Turkish trucks through the Iraqi oil refinery town of Baji, 200 miles north of Baghdad, Oct. 7, 2003 (Photo: Sabah Arar/AFP-Getty Images).

It is not possible to separate the Turkish Parliament’s Oct. 7 decision to authorize the government to send military units to Iraq to join forces with coalition troops from the fact that the very same Parliament refused to allow U.S. forces to use Turkish land for the transit of 62,000 troops on their way to attack Iraq back in early March. If we bear in mind that the March vote to refuse the Americans’ requests passed with a majority of no more than four votes, we can see a strong connection between the two parliamentary votes. On the other hand, nervous Kurdish groups are speaking out about this latest Turkish decision.

This latest vote stems from the fact that, in the calculations of both the Turkish executive and its strong military institutions, the March decision is considered to have produced serious mistakes. The Turkish military chiefs of staff, who have strong control over security policy and all the sectors that support it, had  arrived at the conclusion in early summer 2002 that Turkish participation in the military campaign against Iraq under the leadership of the United States was obligatory. They felt that the choice was clear and unavoidable. Working from this assumption, the chiefs of staff began planning to send Turkish units to northern Iraq to protect the rear of American forces during their advance to Baghdad.

But the premature granting of a clear commitment to the United States by the Turkish chiefs of staff greatly contributed to the victory of the Justice and Development Party in the November 2002 Turkish elections. At that point, this new and complicating event disrupted the calculations of the chiefs of staff, but they pressured the government to announce that the final decision to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish soil for deployment into Iraq would be made through the mediation of the civilian government. The chiefs of staff concluded that the government had double-crossed them by delaying the vote for the resolution to support the American campaign so that enough opposition could be built up to defeat the measure.

Before the ultimate parliamentary vote, when the process was being held up by internal delay, Washington insiders believed that Turkey didn’t object to U.S. plans, but that the Turks were actually wholeheartedly behind the effort as long as there was some compensation for them. The American calculations were based on the assumption that, whether the necessary payoff to the Turks would take the form of money or weapons, they would ultimately clinch the deal with Turkey. But concern reached critical levels as the haggling seemed to stall. At this point in the negotiations, some in Washington began to doubt: Was it really material compensation that the Turks were after? Or were the Turks’ secret desires centered on gaining concessions on Washington’s policies with regard to the Iraqi Kurdish movements? Perhaps this was the key to greasing the wheels of the Turkish government’s decision-making process.

These ulterior motives seem to have become clear to the Americans only at a later point. When this realization—and the realization that negotiations were stalled—dawned in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a beeline for Ankara. It was his view—and the view of the Pentagon—that the government of the Justice and Development Party, which depended on Islamist sentiment, was responsible for the delay. Yet he was in for a surprise when it became apparent that the payoff would also have to include support for Turkish designs on the Iraqi Kurds. And so when negotiations collapsed, the United States, which had always placed its bets on the reliability of the Turkish generals to come through for them, began to turn to Iraqi Kurds for advice and help.

The Kurds seized the opportunity and told the Bush administration that the Turks were striving for regional and strategic goals and not just material or military rewards. They argued that the Turks have a violent desire and will to eliminate the remnants of the Kurdistan Labor Party (PKK) that fled to the Kurdish regions of Iraq. Considering that their movement calls for Kurdish independence, which would include the 11-18 million Kurds of Turkey—the greatest concentration of Kurds among all the countries of the region—this indeed could be seen as a dangerous threat to the integrity of the Turkish nation. It is the specter of this type of Kurdish secession that the Turkish military is committed to quashing, as it sees its duty as upholding the Constitution, which emphasizes the secular and unified character of the Turkish motherland.

The opinion of Iraqi Kurds was that if the Turkish army moved into northern Iraq, it would never pull out. In this scenario, no matter what, the Turks would justify their continued presence, whether by utilizing “ancient historical” propaganda that northern Iraq is a remnant from the heritage of the Ottoman Caliphate or on the pretense of protecting the Turcoman minorities in Iraq, who are “connected by blood” to the Turkish nation.

Before the war began, the Turks unwisely bet that the United States would not enter the war without Turkey. On the other hand, the Iraqi Kurds bet that the war train was barreling down the tracks: The Pentagon did not have the patience to put up with Turkish dawdling, and regardless, the choice to go to war was already preordained for the American administration. In evaluating the Kurds, the Bush administration saw that they populate the northern parts of Iraq as far as the suburbs of the city of Kirkuk; if the United States opted for the Turks, who were unreliable at best, there was the distinct probability of a Kurdish reaction, which would mean an additional conflict in northern Iraq. A war inside a war went against American objectives in Iraq. American planners could imagine the results if the Turkish army entered northern Iraq, ostensibly as a partner in the conflict against the regime of Saddam Hussein: A new front would be opened, as Kurdish fighters would respond to the presence of Turkish troops with force. This scenario would have obviously presented a catastrophic danger, because it was apparent that the Kurds were less worried by the Iraqi army—that danger had long passed—than they were by the prospect of a prolonged Turkish occupation. In the final analysis, the Iraqi Kurds had laid all their cards on the table and had zealously committed themselves to the United States. So the United States chose the Iraqi Kurds and entered the war without the Turks.

This American decision produced a massive jolt in Ankara. A result of the Turkish government’s intransigence, the debacle over the Iraqi war led to a dangerous and undesired rift in relations with the United States, while producing tangible results for Iraqi Kurds at the expense of Ankara. The images coming out of northern Iraq were alarming to the Turks: PKK fighters were on TV fully cooperating with U.S. military authorities for the first time. [U.S. soldiers] credited them for the able job they were doing to keep the situation calm and secure in northern Iraq during the war.

When all this was made abundantly clear to the Turkish government, it spared no expense or effort to bring Ankara’s policy in line with U.S. policy in the Middle East. Their efforts might have been fruitless had it not been for the new tragedy that began to unfold for U.S. forces in Iraq. As U.S. forces began to seem helpless and spread too thin by the emergence of insecurity and instability in Iraq, the U.S. administration was forced to seek assistance from any Islamic nation that was willing to help. Fundamentally, these Islamic nations could both lighten the losses afflicting U.S. military forces in Iraq and ease the process of setting up a long-term occupation. Standing at the front of the line of volunteers was Turkey.