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Turkish Raids Against Kurdish Rebels Add New Tension to Iraq Conflict

December 18, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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The Turkish military conducted a raid against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq Tuesday, two days after Turkish airstrikes hit Kurdish targets. After a reporter examines U.S.-Turkish military cooperation, experts consider the background behind the cross-border tensions.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, Turkish troops in northern Iraq, with the United States in the middle. Gwen Ifill has our story.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the oil-rich Kurdish city of Kirkuk this morning on an unannounced visit, just hours after Turkish troops conducted cross-border raids into Kurdish northern Iraq.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: I very much enjoyed my opportunity to be here.

GWEN IFILL: But Massoud Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, refused to meet with Ms. Rice, citing unhappiness that the U.S. provided the Turks with intelligence that aided the attacks today and air raids on Sunday. Rice did not deny that.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: This was a Turkish decision. And we have made clear to the Turkish government that we continue to be concerned about anything that could lead to innocent civilian casualties or to a destabilization of the north.

GWEN IFILL: Overnight, several hundred Turkish troops crossed about a mile-and-a-half into Iraqi Kurdish territory, in pursuit of fighters from the Kurdish Workers Party, known by its acronym, PKK. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and by the United States.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said today the target was the alleged terrorists, not the Iraqi Kurds.

ABDULLAH GUL, President of Turkey (through translator): Everybody should know that there is only one target for Turkey, which is terror. There are no other goals or targets.

Iraq is a brother country, a friendly neighbor for Turkey. Iraq’s stability is very important for us, too. Therefore, from now on, whatever is necessary in the struggle against terrorism, it is being done.

GWEN IFILL: The Turkish incursion followed weekend bombing runs by the Turkish air force. Air strikes flattened a village in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, near the Turkish border.

Those sorties angered the central government in Baghdad, who said they had not been informed of the impending flights. On Sunday, a Kurdish government spokesman warned the Turks to tread lightly.

JAMAL ABDULLAH, Spokesman, Kurdistan Regional Government (through translator): We call on the Turkish military army to differentiate between the PKK rebels and ordinary civilians. We don’t want the conflict between the Turkish troops and the PKK to be diverted into a conflict between the Turkish forces and the people of Kurdistan.

GWEN IFILL: The Kurds of northern Iraq have long sought autonomy. The Turks have a sizable Kurdish population in their southeastern region. Tensions have been building for months.

In October, the Turkish parliament voted overwhelmingly to authorize military action against the PKK, and Turkish troops massed on the border. They were primed to strike after the PKK killed a dozen Turkish troops in a cross-border ambush.

The attack was a prime subject of conversation when President Bush met with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan last month.

Sharing intelligence

Ann Scott Tyson
The Washington Post
And this provision of intelligence is a way for the U.S. military to have an influence over what the Turks do, perhaps prevent a more large-scale attack and having set limited attacks.

GWEN IFILL: For more on U.S.-Turkish military cooperation, we turn now to Ann Scott Tyson, military reporter for the Washington Post.

Thanks for joining us, Ann.

ANN SCOTT TYSON, Washington Post: Good evening.

GWEN IFILL: What can you tell us about the extent of U.S. cooperation, in terms of providing intelligence for these cross-border raids?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: Well, I think it's been quite extensive. After the meeting between President Bush and the Turkish prime minister, they agreed to share more intelligence, partly by setting up a fusion cell.

That draws intelligence from many different sources. It could be airborne imagery from unmanned aerial vehicles or signals intelligence or human intelligence gathered on the ground.

That goes into an intelligence center, set up in Ankara, that would essentially create targeting packages that the Turkish military could then use against these PKK rebels.

GWEN IFILL: So this is a set-up which has been used before?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: They did not have the intelligence cell in Ankara. While there may have been some intelligence-sharing going on between the United States and Turkey, which is a NATO ally, this is clearly a stepped-up effort.

And they took unmanned aerial drones and other assets that are in great demand in Iraq and turned them to these areas where the PKK is operating in order to gain that real-time intelligence for the military attacks by Turkey.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any evidence, Ann, that the PKK as targeted, that any real damage was done?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: I think there were reports by the PKK that they lost some fighters. There was another incursion in December, also based on intelligence provided by the U.S., in which several scores of suspected PKK fighters were in an open area and were targeted, and presumably several of those were killed, also.

GWEN IFILL: But what is the U.S. military's interest in this region, you know, nuts and bolts? I mean, we don't have troops on the ground necessarily in that part of northern Iraq.

ANN SCOTT TYSON: Well, there are a couple of things. I mean, clearly in October there was real concern of a large-scale Turkish incursion into northern Iraq, one of the more stable parts of the country, which would open up a third front in the war. The U.S. military wanted to avoid that.

We also have 70 percent of our air cargo, 30 percent of our fuel flowing into Iraq from Turkey.

Finally, this gives the U.S. military some degree of control over this process. They also set up greater dialogue between the U.S. commander in Iraq, General Petraeus, and the Turkish general staff.

And this provision of intelligence is a way for the U.S. military to have an influence over what the Turks do, perhaps prevent a more large-scale attack and having set limited attacks.

And, meanwhile, they're encouraging the Turkish military to take a more comprehensive approach to this as a counterinsurgency to adopt political, and financial, and economic measures, in addition to the military strike.

GWEN IFILL: The politics aside, does the U.S. intelligence committee present evidence that the PKK is a real terrorist threat?

ANN SCOTT TYSON: Well, it's been determined that by the State Department based on U.S. intelligence, yes.

GWEN IFILL: Ann Scott Tyson, thank you very much.

U.S.-Turkish relations

GWEN IFILL: Now, the consequences of U.S. cooperation with Turkish action against the Kurdish rebels. We're joined by Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University. He served in the State Department from 1998 to 2000, working on Turkey and the Middle East.

And Bulent Aliriza, a senior associate and director of Turkish studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. Barkey, how surprising is it to you that the U.S. cooperated in these attacks in any way?

HENRI BARKEY, Professor, Lehigh University: This was not surprising. This was definitely decided when the Turkish prime minister, Erdogan, was visiting the White House on November 5th. And clearly at that time, the president decided to give the Turks a limited -- and I emphasize here -- a limited green light in terms of doing operations in northern Iraq.

This was because the Turks were under enormous pressure at home. And Turkish-American relations have taken a real dive precisely over this issue, because the Turks felt that United States had come 10,000 miles to fight terrorism, presumably in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Turks could not go across the border.

So there was a great deal of tension between the two governments and the population. So President Bush decided to give a limited OK to the Turks.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Aliriza, does this raise the question or any concerns at all that the United States is, in fact, cooperating with an ally, in violating the sovereignty of another ally, as the Iraqis were saying today?

BULENT ALIRIZA, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, it's very complicated. The Turks are allies, and the Turks are allies who have been the victims of PKK terrorism from northern Iraq, which is a country and a part of a country which is under U.S. control.

So the Turks have been complaining for some time that the PKK terrorism, which was revived after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, was a problem that the U.S. and Turkey ought to address together, in spite of their efforts against terrorism and having ignored, effectively, the Turkish pleas for support.

President Bush promised actionable intelligence knowing full well that at some stage that would be used by the Turks. And having seen the Turks use it, now the U.S. is intent on making sure that the Turks don't overreact and make the situation even worse.

Stability of northern Iraq

Bulent Aliriza
Center for Strategic and Inter. Studies
They [Turkey] want the U.S. to support them in this war. The U.S. is in a very difficult position. And, frankly, it's going to be very difficult for the U.S. to balance the interests that they have on both sides of the border.

GWEN IFILL: Let's walk through the diplo-speak of this a little bit today. We heard Secretary Rice say, "No one should do anything to destabilize the north." That was the closest she would come to admitting that the United States had played any kind of role in these attacks. Define for us what she was saying there.

HENRI BARKEY: Well, Northern Iraq is the only part of Iraq which is stable at the moment. I mean, this has been the only success story of the Iraq policy of the Bush administration. So the last thing the administration wants is for northern Iraq to be destabilized.

And how would northern Iraq be destabilized? That is if the Turks were to come in large numbers into northern Iraq. Then you would have a fight between Turkish troops and Iraqi Kurds.

So the administration has always been concerned about this possibility and has been trying now to do something about it. The problem is that this was a crisis that could have been avoided. For the last three years, we have known that there was going to be a crisis over northern Iraq.

Unfortunately, the administration did not pay any attention to it. What it should have done was to do something diplomatic in order to preserve that stability now it's so concerned about.

And what Secretary Rice was trying to do today was also to signal to the Turks, "OK, you've done your little operation. Now call it quits. Call a victory, and then so go home. The weather is anyway going to be changing. It's going to be snowing, and it's going to be much more difficult to conduct operations, and we should all stand down."

GWEN IFILL: Well, now, help me with the other piece of this. We saw Massoud Barzani refuse to meet with her today, with Secretary Rice, and express outrage. Is that true, outrage, or did the Iraqis have reason to know this was being worked out?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, the Iraqi central government has complained about the Turkish action, and Iraqi Kurds could have left it at that. But by refusing to meet with the secretary of state, Massoud Barzani is underlining the Kurdish unhappiness with what was done and the U.S. role in this process and, frankly, signaling to the U.S. government that, as technical allies in Iraq, and perhaps the most reliable allies the U.S. has in the Iraqi equation, they wanted protection against the Turks.

But the other side of the equation is that the Turks are also allies and allies who permit, as the reporter from the Washington Post said, 70 percent of the material going into Iraq to come through the base at Incirlik.

They have lots of cards to play, and they want the U.S. to support them in this war. The U.S. is in a very difficult position. And, frankly, it's going to be very difficult for the U.S. to balance the interests that they have on both sides of the border.

GWEN IFILL: Does the U.S. have interests in the fact that also that this region is so oil-rich, that there are so many resources there?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Oh, absolutely. In fact, in your segment before, the discussion, you referred to Kirkuk as a Kurdish city. Now, there are lots and lots of Kurds living there, but it's beyond the Kurdish regional authorities' control.

And the referendum that was supposed to be held there by the end of the year has been delayed by six months. And who controls Kirkuk on the oil riches is very much part of the regional equation.

Assessing the threat of the PKK

Henri Barkey
Former State Department Official
So this may provide an opening for the Turkish government to finally start doing, take certain steps to alleviate some of the problems in Turkey, but also between, ironically, between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds.

GWEN IFILL: Is the PKK the same kind of threat, Mr. Barkey, that we have come to accept that al-Qaida is? For instance, when we say that the State Department, the U.S. government considers them to be terrorists, is the PKK that kind of threat?

HENRI BARKEY: Yes and no. I mean, certainly the Turks always equate al-Qaida and the PKK, but the PKK is a much weaker organization than what it used to be. In the early 1990s, it was a formidable organization with many more fighters and a great deal of support.

So the problem in Turkey is not just the PKK. I mean, the PKK, yes, is a threat. It does things the Turks don't like. It blows up sometimes buses. It certainly attacks soldiers in the southeast.

But there is also a Kurdish problem in Turkey. And the Turks have tried to associate the two, but in reality these are two very different things. The PKK is one manifestation of that problem.

But until the Turks start dealing with their Kurdish problem at home, they won't be able to do anything about the PKK, because everybody knows -- and the government, Turkish government, as well -- knows that these raids that the Turks have just conducted is not going to stop the strength of the PKK, will not do any serious damage to the PKK, because 2,500 to 3,000 PKK fighters are in Turkey and there may be equal number in Iraq.

So it doesn't -- a few bombs is not going to solve the problem.

GWEN IFILL: If a few bombs are not going to solve the problem, Mr. Aliriza, how much of a threat is the PKK?

BULENT ALIRIZA: It is a threat. I mean, clearly, its attacks in Turkey in October, bothered the Turkish public, and the Turkish government, and the Turkish parliament to the point that the resolution that you referred to in your report was passed overwhelmingly, leading to the authorization of military action beyond Turkish -- to the border in northern Iraq.

And Turkey is now taking on that threat. Now, is that going to solve the Kurdish problem, which successive Turkish governments have ignored, but this government has acknowledged? No. But, nonetheless, Turkey is committed to responding to the terrorist threat, and it's doing so.

GWEN IFILL: And will it perhaps at least calm Turkey down? The concern that President Erdogan and President Bush discussed last month was that the Turkish troops were massing on the border, they might do something unilateral. Does this take that off the table?

BULENT ALIRIZA: Well, the first priority for President Bush at the meeting with Prime Minister Erdogan was to prevent a large-scale incursion into northern Iraq for all the reasons that we talked about.

But having prevented that, I think the president was unwilling or unable to prevent the Turks from responding in one form or another. And what we will now have to see is whether this is actually going to lead to an escalation of the problem or things will quiet down until the spring.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think, an escalation or is this going to calm it down?

HENRI BARKEY: I think this is going to calm it down. I mean, the Turks needed to do this. And the Turkish government and the Turkish military needed to do this, to show its own public that it can do something, even though, as I said earlier, it will not solve the problem.

The truth is that this Turkish government is actually far more sensitive, as Bulent said, to the Kurdish problem than previous Turkish governments. So this may provide an opening for the Turkish government to finally start doing, take certain steps to alleviate some of the problems in Turkey, but also between, ironically, between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds.

Part of the problem is between those two. The Turkish government refuses to recognize the Kurdish Regional Government, a body that everybody, including the Iraqi government, recognizes. And that angers the Kurds and reduces the Kurds' willingness to cooperate with the Turks.

So what the United States needs to do now is to get the two sides, the Turks and the Iraqi Kurds, quietly at the table and start discussing, what are some of the measures that can be taken to alleviate the problem?

GWEN IFILL: Henri Barkey and Bulent Aliriza, thank you both very much.