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The Turkish Military and Northern Iraq

Press reports have indicated that what separates the United States and Turkey in their negotiations [over conditions for American access to Turkish territory and facilities for military action against Iraq in 2003] the size and nature of the economic package wanted by Ankara. This is partly true, but it is not the whole story, and not even necessarily the most important part of the story. Military aspects of any Turkish incursion into northern Iraq and political aspects of northern Iraq's future are, rather, the more significant sticking points. Before discussing the latter, it is nevertheless useful background to review how the level of the economic package has recently increased.

Ten days ago the first press reports appearing in American sources mentioned a size of US$15 billion for the economic package. This figure increased to $20 billion before Turkish politicians declared even this insufficient on the weekend and postponed the planned February 18 parliamentary vote on the presence of American soldiers on Turkish soil to prepare for the invasion of northern Iraq. Following intensive negotiations by the two sides at the highest levels, the figure next quoted in the press was $26 billion. This number was qualified as the final American offer.

But even agreement on a number would not be enough to seal a deal, for the composition of the package is also disputed. The US is offering direct grants of about $6 billion, with the remainder composed of loans and trade concessions. However, Western diplomats in Ankara are quoted as saying that Turkey is seeking $10 billion in grants, $15 billion in credits and loans, and nearly $7 billion more in forgiveness of military debts. (Reported figures that approach $50 billion probably include the value of Turkish participation in postwar reconstruction projects in Iraq.) The subtext of statements by Turkish government leaders indicates that Ankara may not consider the deal sealed until it is voted by the US Congress, which must approve it for the agreement to be legally binding on the executive branch. But settling the economic package may be the easy part.

Likewise 10 days ago, there were reports of a tacit US-Turkish-Kurdish agreement that would permit between 10,000 and 20,000 Turkish troops to enter northern Iraq, ostensibly to secure a strip of Iraqi territory shadowing the border, so preventing (nonexistent) Kurdish pretensions to political independence in northern Iraq from bearing fruit. In fact, the purpose of this deployment would have been to hunt down armed PKK remnants that withdrew into northern Iraq when the PKK dissolved itself in the late 1990s and then re-formed itself as KADEK, focusing on social action in Turkey rather than armed struggle.

According to that tacit agreement, American troops would march on Mosul and Kirkuk, and Turkish and Kurdish elements would agree not to attempt to enter the cities, while the Turks would reserve the right to do so if the Kurds did. This agreement was indeed so tacit that a three-way meeting presided over in Turkey by Zalmay Khalilzad, President George W Bush's special envoy to the Iraqi opposition, broke up without manifest agreement, and with the Americans reduced to warning both other parties simply to stay away from the two cities concerned. Relations between the Turkish authorities and the Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) have progressively worsened since then, while Washington's positive rapport with the KDP has created a bone of conflict with Ankara.

The first figure circulated in reports--of 10,000 to 20,000 Turkish troops in northern Iraq--became inflated to 38,000 in later reports last week. This is about the same as the number of American soldiers projected to occupy northern Iraq. Thirty-eight thousand Turkish soldiers would be enough to restrict severely, if not eliminate, the autonomy of action of the Iraqi-Kurdish KDP headquarters in Irbil. As the economic deal faltered, press reports in Turkey alluded to plans by the country's military general staff to put in fact twice that number of Turkish soldiers--a full 76,000--into northern Iraq, from where they would march literally halfway to Baghdad.

This number of Turkish troops could exert significant political and strategic pressure on all the major cities in the KDP canton: not only Irbil (as well as Dohuk) but also the area around Mosul--the nominal capital of Iraqi Kurdistan under the joint KDP-PUK regime in the 1990s--not to mention a major segment of the pipeline taking oil from Kirkuk to Turkey's port at Ceyhan. And still the dimension and extent of Turkey's military deployment in northern Iraq is not the last sticking point.

The Turkish press has in the past few days given acute voice to the indignation felt by Turkish military staff over apparent American insistence, or perhaps naive assumptions, that Turkish troops in northern Iraq would be under US command. Perhaps in response to this, hints were made as recently as Tuesday in Ankara that Turkish troops could enter northern Iraq with their own battle plan and their own military objectives. Part of this misunderstanding between the two sides may have been an initial American assumption that the US-Turkish campaign in northern Iraq would have a NATO aegis, creating the possibility for American command leadership of Turkish troops. But the Turks were not pleased by this assumption, which outlived NATO unity over military assistance to Turkey.

As of late Tuesday, Andalou Press Agency reported that the US and Turkey had "made progress in political aspects of negotiations and they partially reached an agreement on [the] 'command' issue". This may involve allowing Turkish troops a privileged place in Kirkuk, where Ankara claims special concern with the Turkmen in the city, or even Mosul itself, but more probably Irbil. (Irbil and Kirkuk are by population the two major Turkmen cities in Iraq.) This was not to be a reversal of the original Turkish-Kurdish understanding over the mutual non-intervention agreement, brokered by the US but which fell apart at the meeting presided by Khalilzad. That is because Kirkuk would be in the canton of northern Iraq controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which--in contrast with the KDP--has had very good relations with Turkey ever since dropping support for the PKK some years back.

And yet the final outcome is still undetermined. American troop ships will arrive in the region before too long, and they will have to know by then where to go when they get there. The Pentagon has an undivulged date by which they must know whether Turkey is available as a staging-area/launching-pad, and on which date they will have to begin implementing backup plans if it is unavailable: which still would not mean that Turkey would not intervene unilaterally in northern Iraq. Even if some sort of joint US-Turkish command were established--which is far from being certain--nothing prevents the Turkish military from pursuing its own objectives in northern Iraq. Indeed, this is to be expected and has regularly been declared by both military and political leaders in Ankara. It may be expected, further, that regardless of any cooperation between the two sides, actual Turkish war goals in Iraq will be made no more transparent to the Americans, than the Americans have made their own war planning to the Turks.

It remains to be seen at what point the national interests of Turkey and the United States may diverge in practice, not only tactically on the ground but also strategically in the political aftermath of the war. The first evident conflict regarding the latter will come when the Turks will push for the Iraqi Turkmen to be given a prominent role in a post-Saddam Iraqi government, whereas the Turkmen have been marginalized in the planning by Iraqi exiles and expatriates as well as by the American sponsors of the latter. That is when the military situation on the ground in northern Iraq after the end of hostilities will first show its political significance for Baghdad.

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URL:  http://www.robertcutler.org/blog/2003/02/the_turkish_military_and_north.html
First published in Asia Times Online, 20 February 2003.

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