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Turkish Parliament OKs Possible Invasion of Northern Iraq

October 17, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Despite a warning from President Bush, the Turkish parliament voted overwhelmingly to authorize Turkish troops to take the fight against Kurdish rebels into Iraq. It gives Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a year’s authority to send troops across the border. It passed 507-19, with only Kurdish deputies voting no.

The rebels are members of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. The nationalist group has been fighting for an autonomous region in southeastern Turkey for more than 20 years. The Turkish government accuses the Kurdish leaders who are now running northern Iraq of giving sanctuary to the PKK rebels and allowing them to launch attacks from Iraq into Turkey, but Kurdish leaders in Iraq deny this charge.

For their part, the rebels vowed to fight. The head of the PKK in Iraq told Al Jazeera, “Turkey is preparing for an attack. Then we have to resist.”

Tensions along the border has mounted in recent weeks. Turks have shelled PKK strongholds in Iraq and have been increasing their military presence near the border. Thirteen Turkish troops were killed last week in a PKK raid.

Iraq insists it has been trying to stem the PKK and is calling for diplomacy. One day after Iraq dispatched Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi to Ankara to appeal for more time, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, advocated a U.S.-led multilateral solution. He spoke in Paris.

JALAL TALABANI, President of Iraq: We hope that the wisdom of our friend, Prime Minister Erdogan, will be so active that there will be no military intervention. And we, Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional Government, are ready to cooperate with Turkish authorities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The parliament’s vote came amid rising Turkish anger at a resolution approved last week by a U.S. House committee labeling mass killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks 100 years ago as “genocide.” Prime Minister Erdogan has rejected that label, and President Bush warned again today that the pro-Armenian moves threaten to destabilize the U.S. war in Iraq.

Turkey provides a crucial supply route for U.S. troops. About 24,000 of the 160,000 U.S. troops who are stationed in Iraq are in the north, and they could be caught in the crossfire if and when the Turkish military decides to cross the border.

For more on Turkey’s vote today, we get two views. Bulent Aliriza is a senior associate and director of Turkish studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Peter Galbraith has been an adviser to Kurdish leaders in Iraq. He is senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, and he was ambassador to Croatia during the Clinton administration.

Gentlemen, good to have both of you with us. We appreciate it.

Mr. Aliriza, to you first. The vote in the Turkish parliament today, why so lopsided?

BULENT ALIRIZA, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, because the governing party, the Justice and Development Party – AKP, to use its Turkish acronym — and the two main opposition parties agreed on the need to pass this resolution responding to the escalation of attacks by the PKK. The only ones who opposed it were the ethnic Kurdish MPs belonging to the small Democratic Society Party. And I think that reflects the attitude of the majority of the Turks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the Turkish public is behind this?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Oh, very much so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The non-Kurdish, we should say, Turkish public who are, what, 75 percent, 80 percent?

BULENT ALIRIZA: The Kurdish population inside Turkey is about 15 million to 20 million out of 75 million. So I think that reflects the percentage that you mentioned.

The likelihood of Turkish invasion

Peter Galbraith
Former State Department Official
A full-scale attack into Iraqi Kurdistan would have disastrous consequences for the Iraqi Kurds who run the one stable part of Iraq. It will also have disastrous consequences for Turkey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So now that this has happened, the authority has been granted, how likely do you think the Turkish military is to go across the border after the rebels?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, both the prime minister yesterday and the chief of staff on a visit to Rome emphasized that this does not mean automatic use of the right or the ability to engage in a cross-border operation. It would not have been done without the authorization being given by the Turkish parliament. That's what the constitution mandates.

But nonetheless, it is something that Tayyip Erdogan did not want to do. And he was forced...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The prime minister.

BULENT ALIRIZA: The prime minister. He was forced to do this because of the recent escalation of violence and the attitude of the public. I think it's his hope to be able to control events so, as he said, he won't have to use it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Galbraith, how do you see the likelihood of the Turkish military actually making good on this authority they now have?

PETER GALBRAITH, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: Well, the issue is what kind of cross-border operation they launch. If, in fact, they launch a cross-border attack on what they say are the PKK camps, these are remote mountainous areas, I don't think it will have much of an impact. It may not do much good. But it won't have much of an adverse impact on Turkey, either, and so I think that is much more possible.

A full-scale attack into Iraqi Kurdistan would have disastrous consequences for the Iraqi Kurds who run the one stable part of Iraq. It will also have disastrous consequences for Turkey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean by disastrous consequences? Be a little more specific. I mean, with regard first to Turkey, what do you mean?

PETER GALBRAITH: Well, it would do great damage to U.S.-Turkish relations. After all, Iraq is the signature project of the Bush administration. Iraqi Kurdistan is the only success in the country. It's stable, pro-Western, aspiring to be democratic. And there are 160,000 American troops in Iraq.

And nobody in the Bush administration or any other American is going to appreciate Turkey bringing instability to that area. So there will be a strong reaction, possibility of congressional sanctions. It would do probably irreparable damage to Turkey's chances of joining the European Union.

And the Turkish military might find itself bogged down fighting the Kurdish Peshmerga, the Kurdistan military, who would be a very formidable adversary. There are more than 100,000 of them operating on their own territory. And even in the worst case, it could lead to a new insurrection in southeast Turkey, where there's great sympathy for their Iraqi Kurdish brethren.

Kurdish cooperation with the Turks

Bulent Aliriza
Center for Strategic and Int'l Studies
The Kurdish regional government, which the Turkish government does not recognize, has been allowing [PKK rebels] to function out of northern Iraq. And the U.S. military, which has been based in Iraq, has not been willing to move against them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see the consequences the same way, Mr. Aliriza?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Not exactly. I mean, we have to remember that the two main Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Mr. Talabani, who's now the president of Iraq, and the Kurdish Democratic Party of Mr. Barzani, who's the president of the Kurdish Regional Government, both cooperated with the Turks when they previously intervened in the north of Iraq to actually fight the PKK.

This was during the days of Saddam Hussein, when the Kurds were very much looking to Turkey for support and to maintain a good relationship, not least the no-fly zone that was being imposed by U.S. and British planes flying out of the base at Incirlik.

So it's not a given that the Peshmergas would fight the Turks if they were to engage in cross-border operations, not least because they ought to understand, because of the past record, that this is something that's been in Turkish interests, requiring Turkish intervention in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you raise one of the questions I was going to ask, and that is the relationship between the Kurdish government in northern Iraq and these PKK rebels, separatists rebels, who've been attacking the Turkish troops. Why hasn't that Kurdish government in northern Iraq been able to rein them in?

BULENT ALIRIZA: It's a good question, and I think Peter might be able to answer that better than me. But the issue here is one that ought to have been dealt with before.

Prior to the beginning of the war -- and this really is an offshoot of the unintended consequences of the Iraq war -- before the war started, the Turks made it very clear to the U.S. that, in the event of the decapitation of the Saddam regime, there may well be an aggravation of their security effect to them from the PKK, based in northern Iraq.

And what has, in fact, happened is that the Kurdish regional government, which the Turkish government does not recognize, has been allowing them to function out of northern Iraq. And the U.S. military, which has been based in Iraq, has not been willing to move against them, not withstanding all the requests that the Turks have made. And here is where we are.

A limited invasion?

Peter Galbraith
Former State Department Official
I think, if there is a military operation, it will be limited. I think a full-scale invasion is unlikely, precisely because the consequences would be so severe, for the U.S., for Turkey, for Iraqi Kurdistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So does that help explain, Ambassador Galbraith, why this has happened, these increasing attacks by these Kurdish, the PKK rebels?

PETER GALBRAITH: Partly. But, first, I'd just like to make clear there's no disagreement between Bulent and myself about the consequences of a Turkish cross-border operation. If it is limited and is going to the PKK areas, then I don't think it's going to have very severe adverse consequences in Iraqi Kurdistan or on relations with the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you think that's likely, that kind of a limited...

PETER GALBRAITH: I think, if there is a military operation, it will be limited. I think a full-scale invasion is unlikely, precisely because the consequences would be so severe, for the U.S., for Turkey, for Iraqi Kurdistan. And the Turkish government and the military have really been quite pragmatic about the developments in Iraqi Kurdistan.

They do have a legitimate concern about the PKK, although I would say that they tend to blame much on the PKK on operating out of bases in northern Iraq that may, in fact, originate in Turkey or may not be PKK. But that said, there clearly is an issue there.

Now, the question you posed is, why hasn't the Iraqi Kurdistan government done anything about it? And there are two reasons. First, the terrain is very remote and mountainous, and the Iraqi Kurds don't have the military resources to get up there.

Second, they did fight on the Turkish side against the PKK in the 1990s. They took 2,500 casualties. Nobody in Iraqi Kurdistan wants to repeat that experience. And as Iraqi Kurdistan becomes more democratic, it becomes politically less popular for the government to take military action against fellow Kurds or to accept the losses to their own forces that would be involved in doing that.

The vote's effect on the Iraq war

Bulent Aliriza
Center for Strategic and Int'l Studies
In the event that we have a conflict in the north...that would be a very negative development, because there are enough problems in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, to both of you, the effect of all of this on the war in Iraq, does this have a material effect on whatever the outcome may be in Iraq?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Sure. This has been the most stable part of Iraq, as President Bush and other administration officials have said. In the event that we have a conflict in the north, be it between the Turks and the PKK or the Peshmergas joining in on the side of the PKK, and the Turkish army and the Peshmergas plus the PKK, that would be a very negative development, because there are enough problems in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even if it's the limited operation?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Even the limited would distract people's attention from what's happening. And also, at the broader level, the Turks have been talking about restricting the use of Incirlik Air Base, which, as Secretary Gates has said, is so important in the re-supply of Iraq.

That was not directly related to the Turkish-Kurdish tensions, but the Armenian genocide resolution that was approved. So there are many aspects of the U.S.-Turkish relationship that tie to each other. And, frankly, an escalation of the situation and deteriorating is something that nobody ought to want.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Ambassador Galbraith, the effect on Iraq? Anything to add to what Mr. Aliriza just said?

PETER GALBRAITH: I think he has it basically right. A limited intervention, in my view, would be a distraction. Something that ended up bringing clashes between the Turkish army and the Kurdish Peshmerga or the Kurdistan army, because -- which would only take place, frankly, if the Turkish army penetrated into major population areas -- that would be profoundly destabilizing.

It would disrupt U.S.-Turkish relations, which are already at a record low. And if it then affected Turkey's willingness to cooperate with the re-supply of U.S. forces in Iraq, this could have a major adverse impact on the Iraq war.

And that's likely not just to anger the administration but to anger the American people. And so you'll find both Turks and Americans angry at each other. And it's a really sad state of affairs, given what had been a very close alliance just seven years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we hear you both. Gentlemen, we thank you for being with us. Ambassador Peter Galbraith and Mr. Bulent Aliriza, it's good to have you both with us. We appreciate it.

PETER GALBRAITH: Good to be with you.