Turkish Offensive against the PKK in Northern Iraq

Ankara Given Free Reign

Despite a few admonitions coming out of Washington, the Turkish army's incursion into northern Iraq is not really putting the country's relations with the USA to the test, Peter Philipp maintains in his commentary

Washington has swiftly acknowledged that it was informed in advance of the Turkish military operation in Kurdish northern Iraq before the first units crossed the border. But official speakers in the USA also rushed to reassure the public that this is merely a short, limited offensive.

Similar voices could be heard coming out of Baghdad, where there is equal interest in not playing up a situation that may be annoying, but over which it has little or no influence. Baghdad of course even less so than Washington.

US administration's strategic interests

The USA has the least interest of all in upsetting relations with Ankara. As a NATO partner, Turkey is not only an important ally in the region, but also represents one of the key supply routes to Iraq.

And it was already plain to see at the beginning of the Iraq War that Washington would have to pay a price for this kind of strategic benefit, or at least that the USA's options for exerting influence on Turkey would be very limited.

The USA's scope of influence is curtailed still further by the ideology of the "war on terror" that George W. Bush continues to propagate.

Like Turkey, the US regards the PKK as a terrorist organization, and it would look very strange indeed if the same USA that is supposedly fighting terrorism worldwide would now choose to prevent a friendly nation from taking action against terrorists that have settled just across its borders.

Thus, from the very beginning of the tensions along the Iraqi-Turkish border late last year, Washington has been willing to offer Turkey logistical support.

The USA also knew of course that stopping attacks and raids across the border is the task of the respective government – in this case the central Iraqi or Kurdish regional government. Or – since these two are neither prepared nor able to do the job – that the task would fall to the US troops in Iraq.

"Silent Agreement"

And Washington could have no interest in assuming this mantle, and still doesn't today: It is not even in control of things in Iraq – why should it now go and ruin its relations with the Kurds in the North, who up until now have been good allies and whose territory is more or less peaceful?

It seems easier just to give Ankara free reign – with the silent agreement that any military action will not be taken further than absolutely necessary. Just to be on the safe side, the USA is now also following up with some warnings that Turkey should conclude the operation as soon as possible.

And yet Washington has tacitly permitted an escalation of the Turkish offensive by agreeing to the Turkish army's ground operations, or at least not opposing them.

The only discernible reason for this must be the realization that has begun to dawn in the USA – only after so many mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan – that it is not possible to fight terrorists from the air.

Air attacks usually wind up hitting only innocent civilians. If the aim is to defeat armed fighters or drive them out of their bases along the border, the only way to do it is to go after them on the ground.

Double game

So much for the thoroughly plausible reasons for Washington not to stand in the way of the Turkish operation: It doesn't want to strain its relations with Ankara, or to take action itself against terrorist groups and thereby risk endangering the interests of Kurdish northern Iraq.

At the same time, however, Washington is supporting the armed groups of the PJAK in the Kurdish north – the "Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan." This is one of the groups thought to belong to the PKK, a group with some 3,000 armed fighters conducting raids across the Iraq-Iran border and responsible for terrorist attacks along the border with Iran.

Its enemy is of course not the NATO partner Turkey, but rather Iran. And Washington still considers that country part of the "Axis of Evil." That's why the USA is also helping the PJAK, thus undermining the carefully constructed framework of its justification for the Turkish military action against the PKK.

Peter Philipp

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

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