The button of the stopwatch counting down the invasion of Northern Iraq by the Turkish army was probably pressed on Tuesday, at an impromptu meeting between Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The two men have, in theory, scheduled meetings on Thursdays, which are often not maintained, as they do not see politically eye-to-eye. The surprise meeting on Tuesday has sparked speculation that the assault is near. Cynics, however, say this is just another coup de theatre, which aims at shaking from the shoulders the United States and Iraq, who are clearly opposed to military action against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) on Iraqi soil.
False alarms have been almost a routine since the beginning of this year, when the General Staff of the armed forces energetically requested the government's approval to move into Northern Iraq in large numbers in order to avenge the weekly casualties by the army in Eastern Turkey, caused by PKK armed militants stationed in refugee camps and villages in Iraq.
The Turkish army has been drawing plans since last year for a "total clean-up" of that region, but the government has avoided responding clearly. A wait-and-see strategy has prevailed within the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ruling political formation.
Other events this week corroborate the growing belief that the incursion is near. The U.S. ambassador to Ankara on Monday had to publicly reject in dismay allegations by the Turkish press that his government has been selling weapons to PKK members. The United States, as well as the EU and Turkey, consider this organisation a terrorist one.
General Yasar Buyukanit, head of the General Staff, speaking on Tuesday at a security conference in the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, criticised the international community for what he claims was lack of foreign understanding for the situation and cooperation with Turkey to "combat Kurdish terrorism" in Iraq directed against his country.
Gen. Buyukanit came out of a short period of silence on the subject, to which he had retreated after Prime Minister Erdogan had in late June declared that he did not plan to allow in the short-term massive military action in the neighbouring country. In Antalya, however, he was outspoken.
"While we maintain our struggle against this terrorist organisation," said Buyukanit referring to the PKK, "and expect international cooperation in this struggle, we are having difficulty understanding some positions and attitudes that we face. These attitudes not only disappoint us but contradict the basic notion that combating terrorism requires better cooperation."
More indicative, perhaps, of the signs of an impending incursion into Iraq by Turkish forces is the recent escape of a small group of PKK members who fled a refugee camp in North Iraq and crossed the border to Turkey to seek asylum.
At a press conference this week, organised by local authorities, they claimed that large numbers of Turkish Kurds were fleeing the region in anticipation of a Turkish advance, and that Turkish artillery was abundantly shelling PKK combatant positions.
There is suspicion, however, among observers that the escape and revelations may have been orchestrated by Turkish security services, within the context of psychological warfare, either to incite PKK activists in Northern Iraq to abandon the region, or to prepare the Turkish opinion for future events. Either way, such incidents and information from "beyond the enemy lines" are typical of pre-intervention activity and carry a message or a warning.
The meeting on Tuesday between the two Turkish leaders also indicates that Erdogan is in a situation where he has either to comply with the military, supported by and supporting Sezer, or face the consequences of his moderate approach to the handling of the Kurdish problem.
Not that long ago, on Jun. 13, the Prime Minister rebuked insistence by the military to cross the border into Iraq. This was consistent with earlier statements of intent to build productive relationships with political chiefs in Northern Iraq rather than punish their constituents for their support to the PKK.
"Steps to improve relations with the regional Kurdish administration might be taken in Northern Iraq, why not; as long as it brings peace and calm and paves way for positive developments. If every step we are to take will bring calm for us and for them, we are game anytime," Erdogan told Hurriyet, a national newspaper, Feb. 15.
The rationale for his decision in June not to authorise the invasion was that the problem was not really PKK presence in Northern Iraq but that of PKK armed activists within his country. "There are 500 terrorists in Iraq; there are 5,000 terrorists inside Turkey. Has terrorism inside Turkey ended for us to think about an operation in Northern Iraq?" he asked.
He was quick to add that the figures he gave were just for the purpose of illustrating where the real issue was.
But Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have his back against the wall now -- unless he has lured the President and the opposition on to his turf, a competence at which he excels. On the face of things, Sezer may have put Erdogan before an ultimatum. Either the Prime Minister authorises the invasion or it can be launched without his approval.
Sezer, as President, is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Article 92 of the Turkish Constitution provides that the President may decide to order the armed forces to take action if the country is attacked while Parliament is in recess.
Parliament is indeed in recess, and the country suffers weekly attacks from Iraq-based guerrillas. The President has therefore free hand to act. Erdogan however, either because he got the message or, likely, because he saw a political opportunity, has been swift to accommodate the hawks and steal the initiative.
It would seem that he is planning to call for an extraordinary parliamentary session to seek approval for cross-border action. This may lead to a "yes" or a "no", but in any event, the people will have decided -- and the military and the President will have (M1's emphasis)to abide by such decision.
([T]he timing for the green light to move into Iraq remains unclear. Launching the operation before the elections -- actually, a few days or hours before Jul. 22 -- could increase Erdogan's popularity. At the same time, it could lead to a postponement of the elections, due to a national emergency, an outcome favourable to CHP and probably sought by Sezer.)
-Hacked Excerpt From IPS
And on the related topic of the Turkish incursion into Iraq last month that maybe wasn't:
Yes, it is an incursion which is not; because it is an incursion featuring messages on many wavelengths. For example, it reflects military frustration over recently increased PKK attacks. But it may also be reflecting a military desire “to go for domestic consumption” at a time when an increasingly angry Turkish electorate prepare to vote and when Mr. Erdoğan's government is being accused of being the lackey of the Kurds' cross-Atlantic allies. But there is more.
The incursion which is not is probably so finely-balanced so as not to be “large enough” to (militarily) antagonize the Iraqi Kurds and their American partners and/or to (politically) antagonize the European Union which actually is no longer a Turkish concern.
But it is “large enough” to give a message to frustrated Turkish crowds: “Your heroic army is doing what needs to be done when your poor prime minister still talks about ‘the right time' and his poor government cannot raise a finger to confront the Kurds' Atlantic allies.”
… that the men in uniform are more sensitive to coffins wrapped in the Crescent and Star than the men in dark suits; and that the military dares to confront ‘western powers' when the government cannot.
...that it's the generals who decide if additional Turkish troops should enter Iraq to counter Kurdish terrorism, not the government or the lawmakers who care more about their election chances than terror victims…
...that sometimes the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara may have to directly contact the General Staff, not the government (the Foreign Ministry), to understand what is going on at the Iraqi border…
...that sometimes the government cannot govern… Is the military HQ an ambassador's usual first point of contact?
The incursion which is not is probably next to nothing in operational terms: It cannot badly hurt the PKK. It may even be counter-productive as the battle there may go in the wrong direction and/or it may spark possible future retaliation in the form of more PKK terror.
But in terms of psychological warfare, the operation may serve to help test U.S. (and Iraqi Kurdish) limits; and, given the likely way it will be covered in the national press, it may have (political) repercussions – in a way not so pleasant for Mr. Erdoğan's government.
-Excerpt From Turkish Daily News